This Huge Humanitarian Design Debate is a Moot Point

I have been reading, with a lot of amusement, the huge humanitarian debate that is raging across the internet. You would have probably heard or read about it but here is a quick summary if you have not.
Bruce Nussbaum starts the opening volley with a strong body shove with “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?“.
He writes:

The last time I saw Emily was in Singapore in the fall at the ICSID World Design Congress where she was receiving a roaring applause from the European and American designers on stage after giving a speech about Project H. I loved that speech because it linked the power of design to the obligation to do good. In a world awash in consumption, with many designers complicit in designing that consumption, Emily’s message was right on.
But not to the mostly Asian designer audience. Of course there was polite applause but, to my surprise, there was also a lot of loud grumbling against Emily along the lines of “What makes her think she can just come in and solve our problems?
(snip…)
Are designers the new anthropologists or missionaries, come to poke into village life, “understand” it and make it better–their “modern” way?
(snip…)
…a 20-something woman from the Acumen Fund rushed to the front and said in the proudest, most optimistic, breathless way that Acumen was teaming up with IDEO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to design better ways of delivering safe drinking water to Indian villagers. She said this to the Indian businessman Kishoreji Biyani, who is the key investor in IDIOM, and to my stunned surprise–and hers–he groused that there was a better, Indian way of solving the problem.
Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?
(snip…)
Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe being perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism? Are the American and European designers presuming too much in their attempt to do good?

Emily Pilloton at Project H response with a right hook with “Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds“.
Cameron Sinclair from Architecture for Humanity, jumps into the fray with a body slam calling Bruce “Admiral Akbar”, with “Admiral Akbar, It’s a trap! How over-simplification creates a distorted vision of Humanitarian Design“.
Bruce then puts his hands up in defensive pose with: “Do-gooder Design and Imperialism, Round 3: Nussbaum Responds“.
All the while Design Observer watches on like a boxing referee with “Humanitarian Design vs. Design Imperialism: Debate Summary“.
I was at the same congress in Singapore with Bruce, seated and Tweeting the ICSID congress live maybe two to three rows behind where Bruce was seated. But my take away from Emily’s speech was far different.
Emily shared what she did right and what she did wrong. In particular the leanings that was derived from her activities, especially the huge importance of being integrated into the culture and community. I did not, nor the other people around me, feel we were being lectured on “how to do it right”. (Check out my live coverage of Emily’s Speech and see for yourself?)
Furthermore in the pre-congress “meet the speaker” chat, I manage a few words with Emily and one thing that came out of our discussion was designers need to be both culturally aware as well as be on location to make a difference. It was also why Emily, or Project H for that matter, is not going to go into the slums of Calcutta or farm lands of China but focus on problems in her own backyard. It looks like she learned the hard way with the Hippo Roller.
So the next time I meet up with Bruce, I’ll definitely ask him who expressed such concerns about getting preached or lectured too. I’ve met Bruce online and offline and he, I have to say, has quite a different persona, confusing at times. That being said he is good at digging out issues that despite having some small element truth to it, gets him accused of sensational journalism.
So now let’s go back to this discussion: Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?
Before we go on do check out what I wrote on the OLPC that was, strangely enough, in response to another Bruce Nussbaum article.

In my mind, I find this project (OLPC) was a grand scheme thought out by people who felt their better way of life can transcend across cultures and be equally relevant. It’s pretty much a big brother; I know what’s best for you approach.
The question was should be, is a Laptop the right product for this problem in the first place? Why not one computer, but add more teachers and build more schools? Also there are some discussions that the mobile phone might be a better replacement but it is not an apple (communication) to orange (learning) comparison.
I do understand much research was done, but were there conversations with people it was meant to target? What about the environment the OLPC needs to live in? Electricity something we take for granted is not always available in 3rd world countries, so will it sit in the corner discharged?
At the end of the day, I’m sure there were both top and bottom end considerations in the design process, but this to me is more of a problem of Design by Committee. To many cooks spoil the broth, doing to many things and satisfying too many partner’s needs.

If you are interested, check out my other review on the OLPC that questions the design decision of this product. Interestingly enough, I recently got my hands on an OLPC for real in Japan, (pics to follow) and I stand by what I’ve written.
The problem with this statement is, by my count, 3 years too late. My quote (above) was written 3 years ago. By this time, 3 years later, many awesome designers such as Emily and Cameron have learned from the mistakes of the OLPC and other projects and have found great success in humanitarian design.
So yes while I fully agree Bruce’s proclamation that our good intentions are misplaced, what we should be using is “were misplaced” instead or “are misplaced”. I believe designers figured out what went wrong and while not there yet, we are on the way to getting this fixed. This is really a moot discussion and quite unfairly put, if you ask me, to all those designers that really put their hearts, souls and sometimes lives on the line for humanitarian design.
This article is a dedication to their selfless work. Emily, a hug on me the next time we meet.

3 Comments
  • Mokurai

    July 21, 2010 at 9:19 am Reply

    to tell the children of the world what they want? and to tell their parents and teachers what the children need? You have fallen into the pit that you dug for others.
    The OLPC XO is not “the Western way of life”. It is the infrastructure for human rights, including the right to education, the right to health care, the right to access information, and the better-known rights of free speech, free press, and freedom of association. It is the means for publishing their culture to themselves and the world, for saving their languages, their stories, everything that they care about that their former imperial masters cared nothing for, or even attempted to destroy.
    Do you say that the poor of the world should not have telephones? Democracy? What else? If they need to solve their own problems, say in the manner of Grameen Bank and Grameen Phone, then take your self-serving nonsense out of their way.
    Because of OLPC, teachers and children will be able to create the lessons appropriate for their own circumstances, and spread them to the rest of their communities, their countries, even the whole world, for anyone who finds them suitable.

  • Tim Fife

    August 16, 2010 at 9:22 am Reply

    I know this is months late, but I wanted to add 2 cents.
    I’ve seen Emily talk at Art Center of Design in Pasadena, I’ve heard her stories and walked through her airstream trailer, and I must say, it sounds to me like Bruce heard what he wanted to hear. Emily’s entire perspective on design is fundamentally build on the idea of immersion and “doing-with”. From what I saw, nothing was imposed upon the communities, and both the problems and solutions we’re co-defined and co-designed with the people who would be ‘using’ the experiences.
    There was nothing colonialistic about it, expect for the fact that Emily and her partner weren’t locals. If we are going to now conflate ‘non-local’ design with ‘imperialistic’ design, then we can say good-bye to ever designing anything for anyone other than our own neighbors.

    • DT

      August 16, 2010 at 11:26 am Reply

      Hi Tim,
      It is never too late! 😉 Thanks for stopping by and sharing, I fully agree with your insight.

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