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The Backlash Against Humanitarian Design

Leon Kaye | Friday July 9th, 2010 | 2 Comments

Humanitarian design is not far behind social entrepreneurship in the world of international development.  Advocates of humanitarian design, such as the organization Project H, believe that design is not just about attractive spaces and products, but is a problem-solving skill that can help younger generations take on current and future global issues.

One of Project H’s most striking successes is the Hippo Roller, a contraption that allows for easy hauling of water in rural areas.  Plenty of stories can be found on the Internet that detail the ordeal many poor villagers endure as they spend hours hauling water, with clumsy buckets that allow only 5 to 8 gallons at a time.  The Hippo Roller holds 22 gallons and is easier to move than the alternative, given its rolling design.  Project H worked with the South African manufacturer, which invented the device in the mid-1990s.  Both organizations worked together in streamlining its design to allow for greater efficiency, shipping, and a lower price.

Many stories like that of Project H and the Hippo Roller abound.  Gen-Y’ers are showing much interest in studying design and applying such idealism overseas.  Surely most young professionals in North America, Europe, and East Asia are pursing this passion with the best intentions.

But many in Asia and Africa are telling the do-gooders to back off.  Why?

At more and more international development and design conferences, African and Asian professionals are expressing their weariness at their Western counterparts who crow enthusiastically about how their solutions can solve Asian and African social problems.  Leaders in India, for example, have even gone so far to express dismay over Western-inspired projects, such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), claiming it was too expensive while not solving the fundamental problems of India’s education.

Many possible reasons are behind the lack of enthusiasm for outsiders coming into one’s country to “make things better.”  Many feel Western designers see a country’s problems through their own eyes, not those of the locals; others feel folks from western countries are often condescending and patronizing; many believe that they have plenty of individuals in their countries who have the talent to address their most festering problems.  After all, African fashion designers are taking international runways by storm; Brazil has a long leading tradition in leadership in architecture and furniture design; and Indian companies have a legacy of technical innovation while fostering social responsibility.

Replying to Bruce Nussbaum’s article exploring this issue, one reader in Pakistan summed up what many in developing nations feel:

The efforts of Gen Y American and European do-gooders are overshadowed by actions of corporations, military and politicians of the same nations. So on one hand the Indian man sees things like the Bhopal Disaster and the lack of accountability by Union Carbide, or Monsanto’s GM seeds driving farmers to suicide, and on the other hand he sees some people trying to provide him with a cleaner water supply.

To most Asians and Africans it seems like the westerners cause destruction and at the same time some of them come bearing gifts. It’s difficult to build trust in the face of such duplicity.

What do you think?


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