Bruce Nussbaum wrote an article (which I would recommend you read before you finish reading this) that begs the question: "Is humanitarian design the new imperialism?" With a provocative title like that, it begs discussion, yes? And I think it is a good one to have.
Advance apologies: This is longer than expected. I hold the complexity of the content directly responsible.
As someone who has been offered the privilege of working alongside individuals in another culture during my graduate work and beyond, I can appreciate the complexity that this question raises. During grad school, I was called a "design interloper" for choosing to focus my attention on a country other than my own. This label presumes many things, one of which is the notion that I might create something that lacked care or thought. I realize there is a history of such outcomes (which is not exclusive to the profession of design) but I struggle to classify every approach listed in the article as imperialistic. To suggest that designers might be "the new anthropologists or missionaries, come to poke into village life, "understand" it and make it better" seems to oversimplify this discussion and adds to a slew of words that keep us from understanding the layers that are involved in a very complex topic.
During my experiences in Rwanda (which for the record is not representative of the entire continent of Africa), I found myself faced with design questions on a daily basis. Since I am always evaluating how design as a problem-solving discipline can provide a solution, this can become heightened when witnessing significant issues that affect 90% of the world's population. After spending 3 months with a group of women who were unable to get ahead financially because of issues that actually could be addressed, I had a dilemma on my hands:
Do I give them money? This could be a merciful act.
Do I nod apologetically but walk away for fear of imposing my ideas? This might reduce the label issue but poses other problems.
Or does design have a role to play? Would it be a just act to actually improve the situation? If we worked together, could we collectively address this?
Don't get me wrong. There is no formula. But somehow the last option, when handled with care and attention, offers me something beyond a label. And is therefore more costly and complicated.
By definition, design is a discipline that inserts itself into our world where it may or may not be welcomed. Development as a field of work also has a history of inserting itself where it may not be needed. Put these things together and you have increased complexity. And the potential for increased labels. But this is not a new thing in design. Gui Bonsiepe has worked in other countries for many years and writes about the role that design can play in a given culture. This is a long quote but one I believe summarizes the sentiment well:
Design humanism is the exercise of design activities in order to interpret the needs of social groups, and to develop viable emancipative proposals in the form of material and semiotic artifacts. Why emancipative? Because humanism implies the reduction of domination. In the field of design, it also means to focus on the excluded, the discriminated, and economically less favored groups (as they are called in economist jargon), which amounts to the majority of the population of this planet. I want to make it clear that I don’t propagate a universalistic attitude according to the pattern of design for the world. Also, I don’t believe that this claim should be interpreted as the expression of a naive idealism, supposedly out of touch with reality. On the contrary, each profession should face this uncomfortable question, not only the profession of designers. It would be an error to take this claim as the expression of a normative request of how a designer —exposed to the pressure of the market and the antinomies between reality and what could be reality— should act today. The intention is more modest, that is to foster a critical consciousness when facing the enormous imbalance between the centers of power and the people submitted to these powers, because the imbalance is deeply undemocratic insofar as it negates participation. It treats human beings as mere instances in the process of objectivization (Verdinglichung) and commodification.
In light of the many directions I could go (and this post is already way too long), I'll focus on three things I've been thinking about lately as they relate to this discussion:
Labels can lessen impact and cause more confusion: The label of "humanitarian design" doesn't cover the range of work being done in other parts of the world. And you would never show up in a country and announce, "I am a humanitarian designer" when describing the work you are about to do. I would go so far as to suggest that ProjectH, Acumen, Idiom and IDEO are not all doing humanitarian design even though they have been seemingly classified as such in this article (as per the noun/adjective distinction). This isn't to say they aren't all exercising compassion in their approach but I would imagine would make distinctions about their focus. Suffice it to say, I'm slowly learning to tread carefully when assigning titles. They make for a great 30-second story but can be misleading and limiting (see David Sherwin's post on Bingo For Social Innovation).
Time is a valuable commodity that can often lack funding: Designing from a distance using online research is futile. Spending two weeks in a country will often lead to premature assumptions that will affect design outcomes. This means you need to spend significant time where you design. The more you observe and participate in a culture, the better you can assess whether the design outcome will be beneficial and sustainable. Becoming informed about all these layers (economic, environmental, political, social, cultural...) will help reduce the potential for inappropriate or misguided design. Ideally, we'd be doing this in our respective cultures. Naussbaum rightly points out that we can learn from others in this globalized reality we find ourselves in. When we understand how design impacts other cultures and communities, we can ensure we do right by our designs. To do this, exchanges of ideas and information could help us design in our context. Unfortunately, many design projects that fall into this camp tend to rely on grants or donations in order to be implemented. And this can affect the amount of time required to do research and design testing. And so the cycle continues...
Design education could offer people the skills needed to allow for localized solutions: My recent visit to Rwanda to work on a project revealed that many university students would love the chance to study design (which is not currently offered in any of the schools there). I hope to participate in some way to offer courses that could allow this aspiration to be realized in the future (and had some good discussions as to where this might fit during my last trip). Because there are limited budgets for such an endeavor, design projects continue to include designers from other parts of the world. I would love to find a company that could help fund the development of an education program for a local university that may want design but not yet have the resources to make it happen. I have a lot of respect for the work of Professor Ranjan at NID in India. I envision the same for my Rwandan friends who want to make an impact in their villages through design.
(Image sourced from Design For India Blog)
Addendum: Emily Pilloton's great rebuttal!