Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?

Project H is a hot non-profit in U.S. and Europe, almost as sizzling as IDEO, the Acumen Fund, and One Laptop Per Child.

hippo roller water transportOne of Project H’s initiatives was to redesign the Hippo Roller, a water transportation device. (See accompanying photo)

I heard Emily Pilloton of Project H speak in Singapore at the ICSID World Design Congress where she was receiving a roaring applause from the European and American designers. 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.

Nevertheless, there is also a lot of loud grumbling along the lines of “What makes [these non-profits] think [they] can just come in and solve our problems?”

Then, some months later, a similar thing happened. At the end of a great presentation, 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 directed 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. He like many in the Asian audience took offense at Western design intervention in his country.

So what’s going on? Did what I see in these two occasions represent something wider and deeper? Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe being perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism?

As I pondered this, I remembered the contretemps over One Laptop Per Child, an incredibly ambitious project sponsored by the MIT Media Lab, Pentagram, Continuum, and fuseproject. The laptop itself is wonderful, with a beautiful shape and unique interface.

Yet, OLPC failed in its initial plan to drop millions of inexpensive computers into villages, to hook kids directly to the Web and, in effect, get them to educate themselves. The Indian establishment locked OLPC out precisely because it perceived the effort as inappropriate technological colonialism that cut out those responsible for education in the country—policymakers, teachers, curriculum builders, parents. OLPC never got into China either. Or most of the large nations it had originally targeted.

So where are we with humanitarian design? I know almost all of my Gen Y students want to do it because their value system is into doing good globally. Young designers in consultancies and corporations want to do humanitarian design for the same reason.

But should we take a moment now that the movement is gathering speed 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. Do designers need to better see themselves through the eyes of the local professional and business classes who believe their countries are rising as the U.S. and Europe fall and wonder who, in the end, has the right answers?

[Excerpts by Bruce Nussbaum, writing at fastcodesign]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *