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.