Why Ethnocentrism in the International Animal Rights Movement is Stalling Long Term Progress

As international animal welfare and animal rights groups from the West frequently look to Asia as a conglomeration of  lands of savage animal cruelty due to targeted marketing against the dog meat trade, some very sick and unproductive side effects have come out of this process. This process of singling out certain Asian countries, most of whom the average petition-clicker has never been to nor could they tell you much about it other than its location in on the Asian continent, has sent out a message that “Asians” (a term I loathe using due to the fact 60 percent of the world’s population is Asian and spread out through 48 different countries) are cruel to animals.  This then automatically makes it seem that the other 40% of the world’s population must be bunny-hugging monks by comparison.  Calls for boycotting China (whatever the hell that means) or signing useless petition after useless petition to end this widespread cruelty on the Asian continent litter social media along with viral videos of anyone of Asian ethnicity harming a dog. The internet is flooded with this nonsense posted by people with empty passports, no language skills, and barely any understanding of the industrialized system of torture and murder for animals in their own neighborhood.

Racism and international animal activism seem to go together like peas and carrots. The dog meat trade campaigns are the root of the vast majority of this and as international welfare organizations fill their coffers with anti-dog meat donations, not a damn thing changes for any animals of any species. While my conclusion may seem extreme, 8 years of messages and comments received from Westerners on our Facebook page, website, and by email for the organization can prove my point.  Rabid racism and blatant ignorance based on viral misinformation from non-experts has been the norm from day one and it’s not improving as international groups continue making moves to please the donors rather than work towards grassroots, sustainable change from a non-speciesist methodology.  

The reason this has ruffled my feathers enough to write an blog about it is that as someone who has lived abroad for 14 years on 4 continents, I’ve been forced to watch development organizations of all types fail miserably again and again due to the simple fact that they fail to truly integrate local initiatives into their solutions rather than implanting Western frameworks inappropriately and then shrugging their shoulders when everything goes awry.  

Every day in my life working in Vietnam, I see abuse of animals.  Every single day it hurts. Every single day I want to end it.  However, I also know I am not Vietnamese and never will be, and as a result, will never ever have the appropriate tools to make the paradigm shift necessary to end animal exploitation unless my organization utilizes every opportunity possible to build up the work of local animal lovers to become the work of true change makers.  This idea that the West is Best, this White Man’s Burden to civilize the savages: it’s simply not working.  Whether campaigning against sex trafficking, child labor, ending political corruption, or disability rights, the Vietnamese are perfectly capable of creating change and doing it in ways that will last longer than any UN/IMF/USAID contract does.  For those development workers who typically pop into countries for 3 years at a time to use their Master’s degrees to write programs and sit in air conditioned offices before running off to a new country in which they will never fully integrate and learn the language beyond what it takes to order a margarita, rest assured that there is a better way.  

The fact is that none of these connections necessary for enacting change without an ethnocentric basis are going to be made from Los Angeles, London, Frankfurt or Syndey. If you are an expat in Vietnam, don’t be surprised if they also will not happen while sipping Prosecco at beach bars with other expats who wish to change the world between hangovers and online English classes. None of these networks and discoveries will be made without speaking the language or understanding from birth the society in which we wish to enact change.  None will be made from an air conditioned office and not a single bit of it will become clear without years and years on the ground and endless nights of wanting to give up on all of them.  More than anything, none of this will happen without sitting your ass down and accepting that no matter what you want to change about a place, unless you grew up there, you will find it extremely difficult if not entirely impossible to achieve.

We have watched endless foreigners come and go to our town who have desperately wanted to end the dog meat trade. It is a monthly occurrence at this point that we are faced with groups of very well-intentioned foreigners coming to save the doggies and kitties of Vietnam. They come for a few years, or often much less than that, live in adorable villas with Instagram influencers and drive motorbikes around the mountains with bikini-clad tourists to hook up with while pointing fingers at the savage system of animal cruelty they see every day. They are motivated to make great change and as “white warriors” gallivanting around the world with their valuable passports have no societal clues to tell them they cannot do it. Their Facebook friends will tell them they are heroes for trying to change this beastly place from its evil ways against animals and then post photos of their recent neighborhood barbeque without a trace of irony. I was definitely that girl for many, many years though with hot, French surfer boys rather than bikini clad tourists so it is not a story I tell without calling myself out. I get it. We think we can fix things wherever we go and among those things most frequently “fixed” by the “Almighty Whitey” is the dog meat trade.

Once upon a time, I, too, had the painfully moronic mentality that the dog meat trade was something little me and my American 501c3 nonprofit could fix in a place where even getting the right damn coffee ordered or telling directions to a taxi driver in Vietnamese remain a daily challenge. If I could meet my 2013 self somehow, I’d take her out back and beat her in the face for her raging fuckwittery, tie her down and write VEGANISM IS THE ONLY WAY TO END ANIMAL SUFFERING on her forehead in permanent marker. My heart and my passion/rage were focused on the non-solutions that the largest welfare organizations (read: animal eating, “animal lovers”) in the world had been shoving down the public’s throat for decades and I was blind to the evidence of my naivety all around me. I’ve been there and I desperately regret it, so when I speak about this it is from a place of personal shame from an experience that wasted so much of my time and energy trying to solve a problem no one who looks like me can fix regardless of the donors and online petitions giving the false idea that I could. It may sound insulting, but it is only because I personally feel like an absolute tool for doing being part of something that fed my ego while ignoring the facts about international development that I spent many years in both my university degrees learning about. I knew better and still I was blinded by the rage of seeing so many dogs being sent to slaughter while totally ignoring every other species in far worse situations. Even after I went vegan, this mentality was pervasive because I was modeling what other larger and “more successful” (pffff, boy was I wrong about that…) organizations touted from their wide platforms targeted at animal lovers around the world. It made sense at the time even though I failed to grasp that none of these people writing these posts and websites were even living in dog meat countries!

Over time I learned what I could and could not fix as the Almighty Whitey in a country which I call home, but will forever be a mystery. I know that our organization has access to resources and platforms that no Vietnamese have for no other reason than we are an American nonprofit and English is my native language. I have an American passport, which may be totally useless in covid times, but otherwise has gotten me many, many places where I have been able to spread the word of our work, and learn from other people in the field in different political, economic, and social situations who are fighting for animals globally. I know that from this platform, if utilized correctly, and with the help of others experienced in fundraising, marketing, and general nonprofit promotional management, we can get people to help us to build our nonspeciesist veterinary programs again, we can attract resources for expanding our network of international veterinary specialists for our farmed animals and wildlife, and we can use our platform to fight against the detrimental message of animal welfare that excludes the rights of trillions of animals who suffer at the hands of humans. We can get our mobile clinics running again to perform mass sterilization in areas least able to access veterinary care. We can run vegan festivals that help the public stop looking at vegans like freaks and so they can one day see us as the only morally consistent animal lovers fighting for basic rights of all species that we all want for our pets. With 3 new staff on board waiting to get into Vietnam while working remotely, plus our 3 badass managers at home in Hoi An, we are all vegans who know that humans have no right to use animals for any reason and that with our combined voices and experience be part of a new paradigm of animal protection globally even if our influence in Vietnam has its limits.

Even in these dark times globally, we still have resources that we could not have if we were solely Vietnamese, yet we remain ineffective at grassroots campaigning because this is not our country no matter how much we love it. It never will be ours. While we have skin in the game, the game is still on someone else’s field. If Koreans marched in Los Angeles for Americans to stop eating cheese and rescued cows off slaughter trucks to save in sanctuaries for adoption by Koreans, how do you think that would go over?

Putting our best effort into what works rather than pissing up a rope for things that don’t is all we can do now. There will never be a day that we fight solely for “welfare” or for ineffective single-issue campaigns regardless of how that would benefit us financially and garner international support. Not a moment will go by that we will not loudly and proudly advocate for the RIGHTS of ALL species because they need our voice regardless of who gets their knickers in a twist over that message. After all, my son, Julian, is a pig, my soulmate, Chinggis, is a cat, and my best friend, Louise, is a chicken. Like any good mom or friend, I will fight for them no matter how many hypocritical, ethnocentric supporters we lose in the process. These animals all deserve our protection and we cannot stop fighting for that in any way we can anywhere in the world in the most effective manner possible.

Please join us in our campaigns to end speciesism AND enthnocentrism in the animal rights movement and to be a voice for all.