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Cultural Shift 1

The Cultural Shift:

Ethical Considerations of International Aid

A pebble bounces down the red, dusty slope into the cracked riverbed, caked dry in the

summer heat. During the rainy season, this river becomes a turret of rushing water, spilling over

the sides and creating a current strong enough to knock down a grown man. On the banks of this

river in Zimbabwe sits a small, rural village. Every day, the children of the village must cross this

river to reach their school in a village on the opposite bank. During the rainy season, they used to

stand on the shore, gazing across the river to their school, their friends, their neighbors, and

fertile farming land. Every once in a while, a small child trying to cross would be swept away by

the current.

Now, a group of villagers sing and dance in celebration of a new metal bridge that

stretches across the river. Little time has passed since an international aid organization called

PLAN International arrived on the scene. To an outside observer, the residents of the rural village

suffered from malnutrition, lack of education, and a high mortality rate among children. While

some humanitarians would simply provide a temporary solution through food or medical

supplies, this organization worked with the village to solve the permanent problem. The two

groups discussed the problem, worked out the plans for a solution, and built the bridge together

over the raging waters. Now, thanks to the joint effort and the resources of PLAN International,

the village children can go to school year-round, their families have access to the better farming

land, and the two villages can offer friendship and mutual support during any season.

The previous two paragraphs are an example of a successful program of international aid.

Why was this program successful, when so many programs fail? Why is humankind driven to
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help the less fortunate in the first place? Ethics is the force that drives one person to help another,

but its role in international aid does not stop with the cause. Every society has its own value

system; every society has a unique culture. In order for an aid program to make a positive

difference, both countries must thoroughly understand and accept each other’s differences.

Various cultures within a society and overlapping or conflicting interests can make the possibility

of ethical, unbiased aid appear insurmountable. However, intercultural cooperation, education,

and sound ethical judgements can surmount these boundaries.

Clearly, understanding the role of ethics cross-culturally is an essential first step to not

only providing beneficial aid to other nations, but also to understand why such aid exists at all.

Perhaps ethics is something we may never hold and never understand; however, we intuitively

know and sense ethics. Ethics is apart of our human character that allows us to understand the

natural drive that we have towards moral virtue. Accordingly, the goal of humanity is happiness,

which moral virtue tends us towards. Aristotle first made a distinction between ethics and moral

virtue in The Nichomachean Ethics. Moral virtue can be defined by words like liberality, good

temper, friendliness, and truthfulness, which portend an outcome consistent with what is good

for man. As Aristotle points out, the “good” is “that at which all things aim” (Aristotle 1).

However, every culture has a unique set of values and societal objectives that pertain to and

operate within the established cultural structure. Hence, every culture adheres to its own concept

of moral virtues, as a signpost for obtaining the ideal of its established values. Ethics ties these

concepts together: it is the underlying framework of “moral virtue” that comprises the root

system of the vines of humanity.


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How does one determine what each of these societies considers ethical? The data changes

from one society to another, but the method remains essentially the same. All human beings

gravitate towards personal fulfillment. However, the means of attaining this fulfillment or

happiness naturally varies from differences in an individual’s physical and cultural environment.

When certain methods of fulfillment benefit the society as a whole, members of the culture

acknowledge these qualities as moral or ethical. This process often proceeds unrecognized, but

nevertheless, a culture and its ethical standards soon become welded.

The question remains: within this structure, how does one make the shift from a universal

ethical system to a specific culturally constructed system of moral virtues? The latter is the

blueprint for positive change. The often over-looked requirement for success is that someone

should actually study this blueprint.

Technological advances are drawing the world closer and closer together. Many people

have coined the word “globalization” to describe the flood of cultural inundation that flows over

the earth in the wake of increased international communication. Professor Anthony Giddens, in a

lecture series given in correlation with the BBC, explained that “globalization is not incidental to

our lives today. It is a shift in our very life circumstances. It is the way we now live” (Giddens

7). Relativism offers an easy solution to this befuddled mess of culture, language, history, and

personal objectives. However, this is a false solution. Relativism draws away from cultural

objectives and imperatives and attempts to de-humanize a very human problem, yet does not

encompass all aspects of intercultural communication. Undeniably, cultural differences exist and

must be drawn to the battle lines along with globalization in order to gain an accurate global

understanding of ethical issues encompassing international aid today.


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Before one can understand the differences between societies, one must first recognize the

many differences within a society. Individual societies are not entirely homogenous. Rather, they

originate from a plethora of inherited and attributed characteristics. Cultural needs and values

within a society vary significantly. Dealing with these differences is a crucial step towards

bridging the gap between effective aid and ineffective aid. A powerful country, such as the

United States, may easily neglect the fundamental cultural structures that hold smaller societies

together, or even tear them apart. Race, age, gender, religion, and socioeconomic class: all of

these factors play roles within society. Some divisions are more prevalent than others, some are

beneficial while others are detrimental, and all of them change relative to each individual’s status

and role within that society. In the midst of such confusion, the societies’ moral values are

difficult, if not impossible, to define for the purposes of aid. An excellent example of this

dilemma is the ongoing strife between different cultural and religious groups within the state of

Israel. The conflict between Arabs and Jews in Israel is the best known and most prevalent

conflict; however, “each side is multifaceted, itself torn by tensions along ethnic, class, and

religious lines” (Shipler 13). Israel’s citizens have immigrated to Israel from the United States,

Europe, Africa, South America, and every other area of the world. The religion is further divided

into Orthodox, Reform, and all areas of Judaism in-between; Sephardic versus Ashkenazi Jews

form another cultural gap. Attitudes and background vary by region, such as the West Bank, the

Gaza Strip, and Israel itself. Among the Arab population, some people are Muslim while others

practice Christianity, some describe themselves as Palestinian and others Israeli. Both within and

outside of these groups, one can find Bedouin tribes, members of the PLO, and Zionists. These

numerous complicated interactions between overlapping groups within just one small country
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illustrate the importance of thoroughly understanding the recipient culture before administering

aid.

The dispersion of international aid poses several vexing ethical and cultural

considerations that must be examined in full. The implementation of a successful program

necessitates a thorough analysis of the cultural differences between the country giving aid and

the country receiving aid. In order for the aid process to both take affect and be beneficial, cross-

cultural understanding must supercede ethnocentric tendencies. In other words, the donor

country must “step into the shoes” of the receiving country to completely understand the nature

of the latter’s needs. The donor country must also consider the implications of the aid: a mosaic

of both positive and negative consequences is probable. When so many causes and outcomes of

aid are possible, donor countries must carefully consider their methods and address the

underlying question: How?

When approaching the subject of international aid, a cultural analysis is imperative in

order to secure good relations between the countries and to facilitate the proper use and

inculcation of the aid within the culture. International aid varies in type, form, and function, yet

the ultimate goal should tend toward a permanent solution that is culturally accepted and

practical. The surest route to achieving this goal involves an assessment of the problem by the

people facing the difficulties. To try to implement a solution to a problem without considering

cultural differences is a waste of time for the implementers, and can be confusing, dangerous, or

mere entertainment for the recipients of the aid. In her article, “Communicating on immunization

to mothers and community groups,” Miriam K Were describes the joint effort between the

“professionals” and a native tribe in Kenya. The people of the Kakamega tribe suffered from
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various diseases, including “diarrhea, measles, and other childhood problems” (Were 432). In

past attempts to improve the health of this tribe, workers met with limited success because

. . . once a problem was recognized by the people and the health staff, the health

and other development workers immediately proceeded to expound on their

understanding of the cause of the problem and present their solution, without

paying any attention to how the people explained causation and how they would

go about getting to the solution. (433)

However, in this example, the workers and people worked jointly. Not only did the so-called

“primitives” present a viable explanation to the question of the origin of intestinal worms in

children, but they also had formulated a theory concerning how the disease was spread. They

hypothesized that witch doctors could manipulate the feces of infected children to “play magic”

(435), or to spread the disease. This explanation provides a working theory concerning the spread

of disease that not only upholds their current data, but also can predict future events.

At this point in the discussion, the two groups began brainstorming solutions to the

problem. Their discussion refutes the notion that members of underdeveloped regions lack

intelligence compared to individuals from a first-world country. When one person suggested that

the tribe should kill all of the witch doctors to prevent the spread of the disease, one woman

among the natives attacked this idea, reasoning, “You don’t always know the witch doctor!”

(435). Eventually, the groups agreed that digging latrines was the best solution to the problem:

they provided a sanitary waste disposal system and kept the feces out of reach of the witch

doctors. Clearly, perceived ignorance or lesser intelligence in a foreign culture is simply a

difference in the most valued or pertinent knowledge of each society. Were relates, “An elder
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once described a graduate [student] as ‘having wasted so many years and so much money and

coming out without any understanding of life” (432).

When a more developed country, such as the United States, administers aid in a third

world country, the workers often carry with them a moral stigma of supremacy. After all, the

United States has more knowledge and is more civilized than the native tribes, right? Developed

societies have just as many faults, problems, and barbarous or animalistic acts, if not more, than

the societies to which they compare themselves. A developed country complains about the

barbaric nature of underdeveloped countries, yet thousands here die of smoking related deaths,

murders, and even mal-nourishment. Homelessness, gangs, drugs, alcohol, and nuclear power

carrying the capability to kill millions at a time—are these the marks of a superior society? After

a closer examination, the contrasts between the cultures become increasingly blurred.

All foreign aid addresses one of the three basic needs of humanity: providing physical

and biological necessities (food and water), establishing safe and adequate means to facilitate

social interaction, and encouraging a governmental structure that allows for the peaceful

continuance of the two previous criteria. In order for international aid to make a positive impact,

the administrator must choose the correct channel from among these three. Misdirected aid can

not only inflict more suffering on the recipients, but it may also harm a third party in the process.

During the heat of the humanitarian intervention effort in Bosnia in 1995, the United Nations

gashed deeper the very wounds it was attempting to suture. The “Bosnian leaders made it known

that if they had to choose between humanitarian aid and the possibility of arming themselves

through the lifting of the embargo, they preferred the second alternative” (Destexhe 141).

However, the UN insisted on persevering in their futile effort. As a result of their reckless
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approach, “the humanitarians accelerated the process of ethnic cleansing” (Destexhe 141). In the

case just mentioned one may see how the overruling demands of the heart remain unchecked by

rational political knowledge and instead tend toward overbearing idealistic tendencies.

Two considerations must be addressed in this example. First, the UN provided biological

aid, which proved to be worthless and destructive without the third factor: a secure, peaceful

governmental structure. Second, if the UN had indeed provided the economic support necessary

for building security within Bosnia, then what consequences would arise for the other party in

this conflict, Serbia? Is complete non-interference the answer? Every member of the

international community is obliged by the ethical dictates of the heart to help his fellow man.

Yet, we cannot harm others in the administration of this aid, nor can we be hypocritical or choosy

in our support. Every individual has a right to the basic needs of humanity, but ethical issues

such as these arise when the support for these needs conflict.

Humans are curious as to the actions of other humans. We create common links and

establish lines of communication based on shared experiences and equal concerns. International

aid should not create a mess in a land because of cultural misunderstandings. Our new sense of

international ethics dictates that we consider the fundamental actions of humans before we speak

of what is politically best. This necessitates undertaking an understanding of the obvious:

equality of humankind in the midst of unequal differences.

To a country that seeks aid, we must ask of them “what can we do”? When they answer,

we respond with the full strength of our hearts and the complete dedication of our minds. The

strength of international ethics will be best proven when we detach ourselves from the

mysterious realm of cultural misconceptions, which cause us to disregard the rights and needs of
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others. Government, society, and individuals all seek to obtain the common good. “Every

community has a common good” (Boyle 128), which the members of the community seek to

obtain, maintain, and defend. The purveyors of international aid and the constructors of policy

should never seek to alter the societies’ common good. However, they should serve as an ethical

authority, which acts as a mediator between the common good of a society and the good of

humanity as a whole.

The international outlook has changed significantly since the end of the Second World

War. Today we have a multitude of international organizations, both governmental and non-

governmental, that aid all spectrums of the social, economic, and political arenas. Gone is the

nationalistic tendency of the pre-World War II era. Today, countries and international

organizations have put forth charters, doctrines, and theories that dictate their platform in the

international community. Yet, many of these theories fail to detach from an ethnocentric

perspective of human conduct, society, and culture. Technology has allowed us to televise, print,

and announce our projected visions to the entire planet. Likewise, we have been able to observe

much of the world around us so that little knowledge remains inaccessible to us. What then shall

we do with these observations? Ethan Kapstein once said, “In order to overturn a theory, one

needs a new theory that does a better job of explaining both the old observations and the new

observations” (Kapstein 758). The “old observations” are precisely that; they are not entirely

archaic or outdated but rather pieces of a larger puzzle of modern theory and data. However, as

with any sudden Renaissance, the world is fast to change, while the thinkers are slow to sort

through the data. Additionally, current trends in cultural and political analysis show a diminished
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number of the faithful masses of traditional realist thinkers (Mapel & Nardin 299). Accordingly,

humanity does not wish to be left drifting towards the rocks in a vast ocean of knowledge.

People tend to casually dismiss the strife that exists in the world around them as a

problem beyond their control. Yet, what of the living reminders that stare back at us from the

photographs? What of the children that have been reduced to callous statistics; the children of

overpopulation, of parents that do not want and cannot afford to raise a child? What of the adult

faces covered in tears and flies? What of the reminders that beckon us to consider all that we

have neglected? This is the nature of the ethics of foreign aid. The simple truth is that no matter

which direction you choose to study and solve the problems of foreign aid one must never

neglect the ethical implications of each individual action. Whether realist, idealist, socialist, or

conservatist, one cannot deny the existence of the foul, wanting, screaming face of humanity. Is

there a solution to this inhuman creation of humanity? In Ethics for the New Millenium the

Dalai Lama offers this insightful consideration:

. . . clearly certain things, such as the poverty of a single village ten thousand

miles away, are completely beyond the scope of the individual. What is entailed,

therefore, is not an admission of guilt, but…a reorientation of our heart and mind

away from self and toward others. (Dalai Lama 162)

Ethics, in this regard, is the development of a “universal responsibility” (162) whereby

the very nature of our actions changes. Through a proper use and understanding of ethics we can

“develop an attitude of mind” (162) that allows us to finally accept that as a part of our very

nature we “concern ourselves with doing what we can” (163).


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These statements may tend towards an idealistic assumption of the nature of man. Ethics

must serve as a valiant guard against the very character of man, which requires an ethical

nurturing. For example, if one assumes that international aid is simply enhancing the aesthetic

quality of a more “ethical” world, then the success of the aid is already undermined.

Establishing a useful criteria and foundation for international aid does not simply include bags of

grain and able arms; rather, it fully requires that one understand that ethics desires a certain level

of faith. However, this is a faith one must learn to fight against in order for it to secure a noble

and lasting place in the reality of our turbulent world.

Can humanity easily leap the chasm from individualistic concerns to global concerns?

The “common good” is a sentimental use of semantics. Everyone, at one time or another, will

discover that truth is misleading. Perhaps the ethics we speak of today will be considered

unethical tomorrow, but a link has been forged between the twilight of yesterday and the dawn of

today. What we seek is a new ethical vision to guide our dreams safely into practical reality. A

paradigm shift of this magnitude will not happen overnight. Perhaps, humanity will not

complete this shift in a generation, a century, a millenium, or at all. Yet, if we make an effort to

implement the proposed ethical ratification into practice, the first bridge is built. However, this

bridge leads not to the shore, only to more bridges, which will bear us across the expanse of

infinite possibility.
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Works Cited

Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. David Ross. New York: Oxford University Press,
1998.

Boyle, Joseph. “Natural Law and International Ethics.” Traditions of International Ethics. Ed.
Terry Nardin and David R. Mapel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 112-
135.

Dalai Lama. Ethics for the New Millenium. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.

Destexhe, Alain. “Holding Humanitarianism Hostage: The Politics of Rescue.” Ethics and
International Affairs. 11 (1997): 141-143.

Giddens, Anthony. “Globalisation.” Reith Lecture Series, London. 7 April 1999.

Kapstein, Ethan. “Is Realism Dead? The Domestic Source of International Politics.”
International Organization. 49 (Autumn 1995): 758.

Mapel, David, and Terry Nardin. “Convergence and Divergence in International Ethics.”
Traditions of International Ethics. Ed. Terry Nardin and David R. Mapel. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1992. 297-322.

Shipler, David. Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. New York: Penguin
Books, 1986.

Were, Miriam. “Communicating on immunization to mothers and community groups.”


Assignment Children. 69 (1985): 429-442.
The Cultural Shift:
Ethical Considerations of International Aid

Sarah A. Chase
X5588-1 chasesa

Jennifer H. Herman
X5588-2 hermanjh

Foote Ethics Paper


Word Count: 3,312
27 March 2000