Humanitarian Design: Imperialist or Inspirational?
Pictured: The Teton Valley Community School in Idaho, an Architecture for Humanity project. Several months ago I wrote about humanitarian design, its intentions, and its critics. Having heard Cameron Sinclair speak, I would like to bring up this issue once again. Designing products and houses that are low-cost, sustainable, and build a better life where the people need it most seem to be a no-brainer. On the other hand, several criticisms have emerged, claiming that humanitarian design is just another crass form of imperialism, offensive in that outsiders are telling locals how to get innovate and how to get things done. At face value that does seem to be a legitimate complaint. When I visited the Balkans, I heard many complaints and general disappointment about wads of cash spent on projects (not all humanitarian design oriented, mind you), with the results that little of the money went to locals, while most of that cash was appropriated to administrative, housing, and conference costs for outsiders. Around the world, attacks on humanitarian design are even more strident: the same countries that colonized and exploited people abroad are now sending folks to “help” the same people whose lives had become miserable thanks to nefarious government and corporate policies. These are justified concerns, but they distract from the core values and opportunity behind humanitarian design. A designer who creates innovative products at a low cost that can help empower people, in my opinion, should not be attacked for the policies of his or her country--whether those are occurring currently or had in the past. I view this as analogous to my experience abroad: many people may resent the American government for its foreign policy, and may disdain its leadership, but that is separate from the individual from the USA who is visiting for business or to travel--and by far most people make that distinction. A general grudge against a country or company should not apply to the individual or the entire company. The architect or designer wants to work with locals and wants to help--if he or she had a true “imperialist” streak, that person would work for a multinational or a “development agency,” and even with that comment I am treading into a grey area. No true rule applies, and in the end, thought leadership and suggestions are not wrong just because they are from “outsiders.” Humanitarian design, at least to me, is an inspirational movement. Rather than view product design or architecture as a money making venture (which is not a bad thing, I must add), passionate folks are looking how something as simple as a push-and-pull device can make life easier for millions--and design homes and public buildings that are low-cost, have multi-use, and at the same time are efficient in their use of resources and energy. If you are involved in humanitarian design, we would love to hear from you. How did you become passionate about humanitarian design? How do you respond to its critics? Who or what is the most inspirational practitioner or product? And what do you see occurring in the future? Please reply by commenting below or if you want your comments under the radar, you are welcome to email me directly.
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