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]

Tripling of people impacted by humanitarian crisis

In the last 10 years, the number of people affected by humanitarian crisis has almost doubled, and the cost of humanitarian assistance has more than tripled.

The needs and conditions of the people affected have also changed. As Oxford scholars Alexander Betts and Louise Bloom explain in their recent paper “Humanitarian Innovation: the state of the art“, while in the past most of the refugees lived in rural camps, more than half of them live now in urban areas.

The average period of displacement is also much longer now: as much as 17 years, according to the UNHCR.

No wonder NGOs and governments are struggling to cope with this situation.


Humanitarian crisis-mapping technology

Crisis-mapping technology has emerged in the past five years as a tool to help humanitarian organizations deliver assistance to victims of civil conflicts and natural disasters.

Crisis-mapping platforms display eyewitness reports submitted via e-mail, text message, and social media. The reports are then plotted on interactive maps, creating a geospatial record of events in real time. Once these reports are manually collated, they became a live crisis map of urgent humanitarian needs. For example, the map could show exactly where victims lay buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings, and where medical supplies needed to be delivered.

After the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011, eyewitnesses and other observers posted more than 300,000 tweets every minute during the disaster and its aftermath. In the fall of 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern seaboard of the United States, eliciting more than 20 million tweets.

The pioneers behind the first wave of crisis-mapping technology were typically gifted hackers from the dynamic open-source community. Creating the next generation of these technologies will require additional skills in data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and social computing.

Welcome to the world of big (crisis) data, in which disaster-affected locations are increasingly becoming digital communities, thanks to the proliferation of social media and smartphones.


The Year’s Most Forgotten Humanitarian Crisis

While the world fixated on Ukraine and Syria, a near-genocide ripped through central Africa, to little international fanfare.

It’s been two years since unimaginable violence broke out in the Central African Republic, and yet so few have noticed the near-genocide ravaging the little-known country. The downward spiral began in early 2013, when a majority-Muslim group of rebels seized control of the country and began a campaign of killing and looting. This led to the formation of a Christian militant group to counter the rebels, and all-out sectarian violence exploded.

Watchdog groups warn of ongoing ethnic cleansing and hint that what happened in nearby Rwanda exactly 20 years ago could again come to pass. A team from Human Rights Watch found that the French soldiers “seemed stunned by the violence” upon arriving in the war-torn country. The streets of the capital of Bangui were littered with cut up bodies and Muslims hanging from lynching ropes—an estimated 100 people were being killed daily. “At the scenes of the most brutal lynchings in Bangui, we often found small children among the spectators, watching human beings being cut apart.”

This hasty outside intervention slowed the crush of violence, but there’s still fear that the precarious country could be sent over the tipping point at any moment—and the world would barely notice.

“CAR is not well known by the international community—they don’t know if it is a region of Africa or if it is a country,” says Souleymane Diabaté, the head of UNICEF in Central African Republic.

But there’s the possibility that CAR might usher in peace—even while few are paying attention.

“If I had to summarize in one word what inspires me on December 30, 2014, that word would be ‘hope,’” Babacar Gaye, head of the UN mission in CAR, said at a Tuesday press conference in the capital.

[The Daily Beast]