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The Debate: Is Humanitarian Design a New Kind of Imperialism?

In a recent Fast Company editorial, Bruce Nussbaum asks whether humanitarian design is the new imperialism. Citing the partial failure of One Laptop Per Child and what he sees as a presumptuous West-designing-for-the-rest trend in everything from Acumen Fund to IDEO to Emily Pilloton's Project H Design (to which he dedicates much space), Nussbaum worries that well-intentioned design might be "perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism."

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? Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?


He then asks why humanitarian design work isn't being done in rural America or on Native American reservations, where innovations in health, education, and water are needed. They're all valuable questions, and Emily Pilloton, whom Nussbaum critiques [full disclosure: Pilloton has contributed to GOOD], acknowledges that "too often humanitarian design is a scattershot 'fly-by-night' occurrence," and that some designers are "easily drawn to the 'poverty porn' of the slums of Mumbai or small acreage farms of Africa, before walking around the block and into a homeless shelter in San Francisco."

But in her response to Nussbaum, Pilloton writes that he "greatly oversimplifies the serendipitous chaos that is humanitarian design," and she points out with the exception of its Hippo Roller project, Project H Design has focused almost exclusively on local projects—in part because of the inherent problems of disconnectedness when people design for communities they don't fully understand. She also highlights a few organizations doing humanitarian problem solving in their own backyards: Catapult Design does solar lighting on Navajo reservations, and Project M is wholly dedicated to its community space in Greensboro.

Pilloton says humanitarian designers' biggest obstacle isn't geography; it's commitment. And that sounds about right. As to Nussbaum's question of whether the West might have something to learn from the rest—and surely it does—I suggest taking a look at Carolina Vallejo's Design for the First World competition.

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