Bruce Nussbaum has a provocative post over at FastCo Design Blog today titled "Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?" In it he relays two recent instances in which Western designers present their humanitarian projects to Eastern audiences, which engenders some tense exchanges between the two groups. This is a tension that you'll see a lot if you're paying attention. It arises whenever one group calling themselves "experts" tries to help another group that, the experts assume, has insufficient knowledge.
At the end of the post, Nussbaum asks some really interesting questions. Here they are:
...Should we take a moment now that the [humanitarian design] 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?
In short, yes to all of the above. Now, we love humanitarian design. And it's so great that more and more students and design firms are interested in it. But as we all know, the toughest part of a design problem is finding the right approach. With humanitarian design, the risks are really high. It's not like designing consumer products. It's not just about delivering the coolest new gaming device to junior so that he can have some fun after his cookies and milk. With humanitarian design, people's lives are at stake.
Western designers must take a fresh approach to humanitarian design. They must check the know-it-all attitude at the door, adopt some humility, and think beyond designing and distributing gadgets that save the world.
One approach that is really interesting is Muhammad Yunus's Type II Social Business. Now, a Type I Social Business is pretty much where humanitarian design is at now: Western designers design and distribute do-dads that solve a social problem. But Type II Social Business goes deeper - it creates jobs. When you design a Type II Social Business, you design it, or rather co-create it, with the poor people who you've set out to help. The assumptions are that all people are creative, have valuable knowledge, and possess an entrepreneurial spirit. Type II Social Business not only seems like the right approach to humanitarian design, it's also so much more interesting and challenging than Type I. And we all know how designers love a good challenge.