How to help without unintentionally hurting

The desire to help others is a truly worthwhile and admirable one, but far too often the desire to help other cultures can end up doing more harm than good. In our first article, we talked about the problem of “The Savior Complex”, and how our own ego can be an impediment to really effectively helping others.

Mistake #2 — To Change, or Not To Change

As I explained in Part 1, I work with a Chinese minority group called the Mosuo. They are a truly fascinating and unique culture. Not only are they one of the last remaining matriarchal cultures on our planet, but their culture also has virtually no concept of marriage (couples stay together as long as they are happy, but can separate if no longer happy), and the father role is taken by the uncle, rather than the biological father. I can’t go into great detail here, but if you’d like to know more, please do check out our website.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Because they are such a unique culture, I’m often asked to give talks and presentations about their culture, and about our organization’s work to help them. And when it comes time for the Q&A, I can reliably predict two of the responses:

“Their culture is such a unique and special culture, and what your organization is doing will change that. Isn’t it better to keep them the way they are?”


“Their culture is so primitive and backwards, why don’t you make more efforts to bring them into the modern world?”

Now, superficially, these two responses may seem like polar opposites. And you yourself may share one of those perspectives. But there is a fundamental problem that both of these responses share in common. The arrogance of thinking that you have the right to choose for an entirely different culture what direction they should go.

It is their culture, and their future. Only they have the right to choose what they want to keep, what they want to change, and how they want to change.

Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbour is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions. 
 — Paulo Coelho

I understand why people feel this way. The Mosuo culture is so unique, and so special, it is easy to romanticize and idealize it. “Oh, they are so happy the way they are now, why should we change that?” But such naive romanticism misses the reality of their lives. Infant mortality rates are far higher, because of lack of medical knowledge or access to medicine…do you really think they are happier watching their children suffer and die from conditions that are entirely treatable? Many of them, just like many of you, have a desire to see other parts of the world, to learn about other cultures and other ways of thinking…do you really think that they are happier being forced to stay in isolated poverty, with little or no access to education, and virtually no opportunity to travel anywhere else? Why should you have the right to have healthy children, and travel freely, while telling them that they should be kept the way they are, that there is some sort of ‘nobility’ to their suffering and poverty?

I feel that there is a fundamental human right that is often ignored in such discussions — the right to freedom of choice. There are some Mosuo who will want to maintain and stick with their traditional culture…and it is their right to make that choice. There are some Mosuo who will prefer to mix their traditional culture with new ideas, and create a modified but still distinctively Mosuo culture…and it is their right to make that choice. And there are some Mosuo who will entirely reject their culture, and seek to go out into the world and replace it with something entirely new and different…which again is their right.

But neither you nor I have the right to tell them which of those choices is right or wrong. Nor do we have the right to determine how we will help them based on what we think is the best choice. Our goal, rather, should be to empower them so that they can make that choice by themselves.

Education is an important part of that…to make them aware of the choices that are available, and even better, of the possible impact of those choices. Economic development is also an important part of that…a better economy means more choices for them.

As I emphasized in my first article, all of these things should be guided by the local people themselves. Let them set the priorities, let them determine what things they want to keep the same, and what things they want to change. Don’t make the mistake of getting a ‘savior complex’, thinking that you’re the one who is going to save them.

Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures. 
 — Cesar Chavez

A good example of this (and of a real lesson for me) was our approach to medical care among the Mosuo. Many of them have very limited understanding of medicine or biology, and almost all illnesses are ascribed to malicious or angry spirits, with attendant rituals that are used to get rid of or appease those spirits. We came in with doctors, seeking to offer them better care. And while some accepted, many others refused.

At first, this angered and frustrated me. Their ignorance was causing both them and their children to suffer. And I sought to force my ideas on them, telling them that their ideas were wrong. Their response was far from positive.

Then I sat down and talked with them. I discovered first that not only did most of them have virtually no concept of things such as bacteria or viruses, but found the claim that some sort of ‘animal’ that is too small to be seen — yet could hurt them so badly — seemed far more ludicrous than their belief in spirits. I realized we needed to do more education, to let them actually understand this information for themselves.

Another issue was that, since the nearest doctors and hospitals were often one or two days away, and prohibitively expensive, they only sought such medical care as a last resort. Which meant that, in many cases, it was too late…and if the journey itself didn’t kill them, they’d die in the hospital. So the evidence they had was that while perhaps not a lot of people were cured by their methods, even fewer were cured by medical means. Again, we needed to give them opportunities to learn for themselves, and to actually experience how proper medical care actually could make a difference, if given in time.

We needed to recognize that, based on the information and experience that they had, they were making the best choices they could. And the best way to bring about positive change was to give them access to new information, and give them new evidence…so that they could then make better decisions for themselves.

And — slowly — this tactic is working. At first only a few Mosuo made the choice to get medical care; then, when others saw the results, more chose to do so. And this process continues.

This is an important aspect of Cultural Intelligence…being able to look beyond the surface, and identify deeper underlying factors. In this case, superficially, it appeared that the Mosuo were being unreasonable, superstitious, stubborn, etc.; but once we understood their perspective, based on the actual knowledge and experience they had, we realized that their choices were entirely reasonable. Recognizing that, instead of looking down on them, we could respect them, and develop a strategy that is going to give them more information, so that they can make better choices for themselves…rather than have it forced on them by outsiders.

Continue reading this series to learn about the third common mistake: “Ideology Above People

If you’ve enjoyed this article, please let more people know about it by sharing it on your own social networks; and you can check out other articles that I’ve written here. If you’d like to learn more about Cultural Intelligence, please check out “The Language of Culture”. If you have questions or comments, please put them here, and I’ll do my best to respond. I’d love to have an ongoing dialogue and hear what others think, too!

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