Designer/writer/professor Bruce Nussbaum ignited a blogosphere firestorm with his recent post on fastcodesign.com, “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” The title sets a provocative tone that the post continues. Nussbaum begins the post by a humanitarian design golden child, Emily Pilloton’s Project H Design, which describes itself as “a team of designers and builders engaging locally to improve the quality of life for the socially overlooked.” Nussbaum asserts that instead, some would describe it as an example of “new anthropologists or missionaries, come to poke into village life, ‘understand’ it and make it better – their ‘modern’ way.” He goes on to recommend that as we forge ahead with humanitarian design work, we pause “to ask whether or not American and European designers are collaborating with the right partners, learning from the best local people, and being as sensitive as they might to the colonial legacies of the countries they want to do good in.” And he concludes the article by asking, “why are we only doing humanitarian design in Asia and Africa and not Native American reservations or rural areas, where standards of education, water and health match the very worst overseas?”
Supporters of Pilloton, Project H Design, and humanitarian design in general came roaring back at Nussbaum with intriguingly intense resentment. Pilloton herself went far to the defensive, with a touch of petulance. In her response essay, “Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds”, Pilloton indignantly points out that of the 20 current Project H projects, “18 are based in the U.S., run by local designers invested in their own communities, in places they understand, with people who are fellow citizens (the remaining two projects are in Mexico City, but designed and executed by a team of talented Mexican designers).”
With his last question (“Why are we only doing humanitarian design in Asia and Africa?”), Nussbaum made a sweeping generalization that understandably offended a design leader working hard to improve quality of life for the rural underserved. But Nussbaum is making some great points that Pilloton and others brushed past in their hurry to express just how offended they were. And honestly, when the response to an essay is so heated, you have to think that there is some fear motivating the anger: fear that Nussbaum is making valid points that strike at the very core of what the humanitarian designers are doing. Metropolismag.com writer Susan S. Szenasy breathlessly frames the debate as the latest skirmish in “the age-old duel between the generations, the older one (Nussbaum) with preconceived notions of humanitarian design and cultural imperialism versus the new generation (Pilloton), which is bravely venturing forth to right the world their elders have wronged for so long.” Szenasy, I know this is no fun, but neither Nussbaum nor Pilloton “wins.” The debate is not a black-and-white, old-versus-young, “age-old duel.” Nussbaum makes generalizations, to be sure. But we do need to be thinking about the questions he poses – and it’s an important point that in “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?”, Nussbaum poses questions rather than making statements. The questions may be exaggerated, hyperbolic for the sake of grabbing attention and raising awareness, but the underlying concepts are deeply worthwhile. Pilloton is right to point out that there are plenty of American organizations, Project H included, working locally here in the U.S. But she sidesteps an essential question Nussbaum is getting at: should American designers be working abroad? In other words, is there anything inherently wrong with American humanitarians working in other countries?