Monday, January 21, 2013

The Importance of Culture in the Humanitarian Assistance Field

Hello Candor Salad enthusiasts! It has been a long while since I have made an appearance on this blog and it is most certainly time for the musings of 2013 to begin!  

After another long drive across states, I am back in Denver, and after several weeks of no regular access to Internet, I am back online and even after only a week of classes at DU, I already have a lot of thoughts and comments I am bursting to share with you. The focus of Winter Quarter 2013 so far seems to be culture and the impact it has on human rights advocates traveling to various corners of the world with the intention to assist those in need. 

One of the courses I am taking focuses primarily on teaching beginners (like me) the practical aspects of engaging in the humanitarian assistance field and outlining the so-called best practices in approaching relief efforts in conflict and disaster areas around the world. During the very first class meeting, I could hear expressed concerns that working with certain populations is difficult because their traditions and culture differ from ours (those there to help) and almost make it impossible for us to deliver aid. The logical question in my mind then was: As humanitarian actors, do we travel to devastated areas to assist the affected populations with basic needs and rebuilding their communities and lives or do we go there with the intention of changing their culture to suit what we believe is proper behavior? 

Certainly, there are many cultural traditions and beliefs that could be considered violations of human rights and as aspiring advocates, we should be passionate about addressing these. However, in the context of a disaster, whether natural or man-made, the primary focus of humanitarian actors should be providing necessary support for the affected communities to step back on their feet and resume their lives; the primary concern should not be to express frustration at their “outlandish” beliefs and traditions and to attempt to “educate” and change them. A vital aspect of humanitarian relief efforts should be the development of good relationships, grounded in respect, trust, and understanding, with local communities. Anything short of that is counterproductive and often exacerbates the suffering of the affected persons. How can we expect them to recover with dignity if everything they have ever known is either destroyed or being attacked by those there to help?

 - Krasi