If the necessary cultural differences are not accounted for, failure will always be possible, if not probable, during a humanitarian intervention, writes Steve Killelea.

Why Cultural Difference Matter for Humanitarian Interventions

One of the more profound aspects of peace is being able to account for different cultural perspectives. Diversity is a much-celebrated phrase today, but often means accepting a narrow set of Western progressive values.

This was something I encountered again and again in development, eventually leading to the realisation that for peace to take root it’s important to work with the existing values of a society, slowly shaping them and moving towards a mutually agreed vision.

I would later realise that this was the concept of path dependency in systems thinking.

From my experience, too many Westerners, but by no means all, in Asia and Africa have little understanding of the peoples and the cultures they are setting out to help.

We in the West too often go into these places thinking we are brighter, we know more, and all the recipients have to do is listen and their lives will improve.

Yet if the necessary cultural adjustments are not made, failure will always be possible, if not probable.

The problem with a one-model-fits all humanitarian intervention

I am as guilty of this as many others. The core of the issue lies in our adherence to one-model-fits all humanitarian intervention and relying on narrow actions based on our understanding of the causes and their effects, rather than understanding the system.

We tend to think ‘here is a problem, here is the solution’ rather than trying to understand the way local systems operate, people’s beliefs and their encoded norms, and then tailoring the humanitarian intervention to fit the circumstances.

Often, broad-based cross-cutting themes developed by Westerners are applied to all their projects with insufficient knowledge of the local beliefs or culture.

At times the Western values espoused in these projects are at loggerheads with local morals. Without adjustments to the local circumstances, counterproductive outcomes are highly likely. The road to hell is all too often paved with good intentions.

“We tend to think ‘here is a problem, here is the solution’ rather than trying to understand the way local systems operate, people’s beliefs and their encoded norms, and then tailoring the humanitarian intervention to fit the circumstances.”

— Steve Killelea, ‘Peace in the Age of Chaos’

I once visited a remote village in Myanmar where we were putting in pumps to give access to clean water.
The chief and his daughter greeted us some 3 kilometres from the village; my daughter Jennayah had come with me. It was impossible for our four-wheel drive to get in over the last stretch of road, so we came in on a bullock wagon.

When we reached the village I was met by the local people, and as had happened many times before, I asked them what they needed most. ‘Electricity,’ said the chief.

From a development perspective this was a great answer, and my eyes lit up.

  • I imagined electricity would allow students to continue studying after they come in from the fields at dusk;
  • it would help women to supplement their income with sewing machines;
  • farmers could pump water up from their wells during drought.

But I had been tripped up by my Western views again.
‘If we had electricity then we could put lights around the pagoda and that would be very good for our merit,’ he said.

Enjoyed this excerpt? Download the full chapter here.

Peace in the Age of Chaos by Steve Killelea, is published by Hardie Grant and is available for purchase now at peaceintheageofchaos.org or at Amazon.com and all other major book retailers.



Steve Killelea

Author, Businessman & Philanthropist

Peace in the Age of Chaos

Most books about peace pursue a moral approach, but Steve Killelea breaks the mould with this highly original book that begins with the story of his journey from businessman, to philanthropist, and then to peacebuilder. The book spotlights peace as the intersection between a person and their society, and through the data driven theory of change, introduces systems thinking and the drivers of peace as the basis for long term societal change.

The book also compells us to look ahead - the current global pandemic has shown us that unless we have a world that is basically peaceful then we will never get the levels of trust, cooperation and inclusiveness necessary to solve our biggest global challenges.

Featuring 14 charts and diagrams, this interesting and insightful work is sure to spark debate and is essential reading for those who enjoy Yuval Noah Harari, Bill, Gates, Steven Pinker and Richard Evans.