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Is the humanitarian sector’s ‘respect for cultural differences’ fueling intolerance?


Can we make the world a better place while tolerating discrimination against specific categories of people?

One of the many juggling acts performed by humanitarian, aid and development organizations working in another country is finding the right balance between efforts aimed at reducing inequity and injustice while showing respect for ‘cultural differences’ predominant in that country. Maybe it’s time to reset the balance point.

From The Economist Chart of the Day
From The Economist Chart of the Day

This week, it was learned that Nigeria had passed a new law that makes it illegal simply to be gay. As the Telegraph reported, the Nigerian government is already making arrests. Uganda, with help from some Western religious groups as this report from Al Jazeera noted, has long been fairly high-profile in its criminalization of homosexuality. Humanosphere earlier re-posted a map from UNAIDS that showed fewer countries have laws protecting gays than do those having laws outlawing homosexuality.

Moving from lifestyle to belief, Britain’s Channel 4 News recently reported on the deadly risk of being (or admitting to being) an unbeliever in many countries.  Some 13 countries, most of them with predominantly or large Muslim populations, punish atheism with the death penalty.

At what point does ‘respecting sovereignty and cultural diversity’ become harmful?

Not that long ago, many if not most organizations working to fight poverty and disease in the developing world focused on their particular intervention and often ignored the fact that women and girls are routinely discriminated against.

Eventually, this became intolerable and is routinely railed against today. In large part, this is because women’s rights and gender equity has become so widely recognized as an accepted (if not yet achieved) ideal worldwide. It’s also based on some fairly strong evidence that shows we cannot make much a dent against poverty, diseases of poverty and other forms of inequity if half the world’s people – women and girls – remain subordinated.

Going even further back in time, many otherwise humanitarian folks tolerated racist laws, or even slavery, as a natural, if unfortunate, consequence of economic or biological reality. Reading over the historical arguments in favor of tolerating these abuses can sound bizarre, or even laughable, to us today. But how will the humanitarian community of today look to future observers when it comes to homosexuality and secularism?

Governments often look the other way, even when acts of genocide take place. This willful ignorance and plan of inaction is often justified by some brutal geopolitical calculation that nobody likes. Take what’s happening in Syria today.

Humanitarian organizations, arguably, have the responsibility to shift the discussion to a higher level than brute geopolitics. Many of these countries targeting people for their differences from the majority are also big recipients of aid and assistance. Is the humanitarian community expressing its outrage and demanding an end to this deadly intolerance? Or are we looking the other way?


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.