Archives for category: Humanitarian Design

The question of what and how much we should do to help those in other countires is a huge topic and a huge concern in the world of humanitarian work in general, not just in the world of humanitarian design. As a Global Health minor who hopes to do international humanitarian work one day, I consider it a personal concern, too. What right do we have to go into other countries and try to solve their problems? Do we have any right at all? Is it acceptable to do so if we make sure to involve locals and “allow” them, insofar as possible, to lead the way? To what extent can and should we rely on the guidance of locals and the utilization of local resources in addressing a community’s needs? Important questions that can make the well-intentioned privileged – myself included – highly uncomfortable. Uncomfortable about the question of whether what we are doing is ethical; of whether what we are doing is doing any good.

However, I do believe that on a fundamental level, there is nothing inherently wrong with Americans working in other countries to effect improvements in the lives of the underserved – as long as such work is done with sensitivity, respect, and open ears. I believe in asset-based community development; I believe in microfinance; I believe in the power for change already present in communities and in the efforts of humanitarians to harness that power. Humanitarian work can certainly take on imperialistic tones. And there is much to be said for the benefits of people working in their own backyards to effect change – but only because they are more likely to understand how to effect change, not because it is inherently imperialistic or imposing or colonialist for citizens of one country or state to work to help those of another. It’s all humans. Each of us needs different things and each of us can give different things; I think of humanitarian work as a part of a sort of global marketplace, with ideas for currency instead of money. Let’s not restrict the ideas market based on country borders out of fear of revisiting sour memories of imperialism past, but let’s do make sure that we’re engaging in this market with the utmost respect and sensitivity. That means continuing to ask uncomfortable questions, and thinking deeply about the answers.

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?