Humanitarian Design or Neocolonialism?

Fast Company’s Bruce Nussbaum raised some controversial questions in a trio of posts — and readers had a lot to say. We sample the debate.

Humanitarian Design or Neocolonialism?

Post One

A few months ago, I went to hear a talk by Idiom Design, one of India’s top design consultancies. At the end of a great presentation, a twentysomething woman from the Acumen Fund rushed to the front and said in the proudest, most optimistic, breathless way that Acumen was teaming up with Ideo and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to design better ways of delivering safe drinking water to Indian villagers. To my surprise — and hers — Indian businessman Kishore Biyani, the key investor in Idiom, complained that there was a better, Indian way of solving the problem.


So what’s going on? Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe perceived as colonialism? Are American and European designers presuming too much in their attempts to do good?

I remember the contretemps over One Laptop Per Child, an incredibly ambitious project sponsored by good guys — the MIT Media Lab, Pentagram, Continuum, and Fuseproject. Yet OLPC failed in its initial plan to drop millions of inexpensive computers into villages, hook kids directly to the Web, and, in effect, get them to educate themselves. The Indian establishment locked out OLPC precisely because it perceived the effort as inappropriate technological colonialism that cut out those responsible for education in the country: policymakers, teachers, curriculum builders, parents.

Young designers want to do humanitarian design globally. But now that the movement is gathering speed, we should take a moment to ask whether 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 these countries. Might Indian, Brazilian, and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?

And finally, why are we doing humanitarian design only in Asia and Africa and not on Native American reservations or in rural areas of the U.S., where standards of education, water, and health match the very worst overseas?

People are doing humanitarian design on Native American reservations in the United States. Heather Fleming and Tyler Valiquette of Catapult Design, for example, are doing phenomenal work with the Navajo Nation.


Sarah Rich | Board Member | Project H

As a Pakistani (currently residing in Canada), I can tell you that the efforts of gen-Y American and European do-gooders are overshadowed by actions of corporations, the military, and politicians of the same nations. To most Asians and Africans, it seems like the Westerners cause destruction at the same time some of them come bearing gifts.

Abdullah Ahmed | Co-owner | Steam Walker

I’m a Brazilian designer working in Europe for a North American design consultancy. If I was going to be really sensitive about this, I’d say any discussion that puts together Indian, Brazilian, and African designers is infused by imperialistic language. India is a country with more than 20 different languages; Brazil is a Western country colonized by European nations with African and Middle Eastern immigrants; and Africa has so many unique problems that it is almost impossible to compare it with anything else.

Fabricio Dore | Designer | Ideo


Post Two

My questions about sensitivity to culture and local elites are based on having seen Asian designers, businesspeople, and officials reacting negatively at conferences to what they perceived as Western intrusion. The question for a Western designer is how to react.

I first learned about the unintended consequences of good intentions as a reading tutor for a Head Start program when I was in high school in the ’60s. My supervisor said that some parents and community groups opposed Head Start because it undermined “black English,” and, in effect, African-American culture. Later, I heard that some Hispanic community groups on the West Coast felt the same way. In recent years, I have heard that some Native American organizations opposed Head Start too. Do I think we should have ended Head Start? Not at all. But acknowledging and engaging the historic legacy might have improved the programs and helped more kids.

I was surprised again when I taught third-grade science to kids in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. Indirectly, I heard that some teachers were angry with me. Why was a 20-year-old American with a couple of months’ training teaching Filipino children when there were more experienced Filipino teachers available? The real problem was not bad teachers, but politics. You needed good political connections to move ahead, and many young teachers didn’t have them. I began using my power as the “outside American” to help advance good Filipino science teachers.

I discovered yet another example of unintended consequences three years ago, at a design conference in India where I got an earful on how anti-Indian One Laptop Per Child was. The intellectuals, designers, businesspeople, and government officials at that meeting didn’t think [MIT Media Lab cofounder] Seymour Papert’s work applied to India’s rural-village culture. As a consequence, few OLPC screens can be found in India (or China) today. Is that a tragedy? Perhaps.

I don’t know how to scale the significance of such negative reactions to humanitarian design. I do know that as a journalist, educator, and fellow-traveling humanitarian designer, I am sensitive to what happens on the periphery. It may be that we should ignore those voices of protest — after all, what are they doing for the poor in their own countries? But we should be aware that they are saying something that should influence our work.


Bruce Nussbaum’s overgeneralization of the recent revival of the humanitarian-design movement floats somewhere between misguided and ridiculous. Picking just four recent projects we’ve been working on, the folks involved in the building process are from South Africa, Romania, Germany, Brazil, Colombia, the Navajo community, Kenya, Uganda, and the U.S. Let’s not fall into the trap of who’s best and who’s not when we have BP filling our oceans with oil, large hidden corporations taking major reconstruction contracts, and poor government policy forcing inadequate housing to remain the status quo. If you want to take on an imperialist empire, you’re going to have to shoot a little higher than pro bono designers. Admiral Ackbar, it’s a trap!

Cameron Sinclair | Cofounder and Chief Eternal Optimist |Architecture for Humanity |

I would not mind involvement of designers from anywhere so long as they come with an open mind, share their learning with/from grassroots learners, and give credit where it is due. The problem arises when some so-called do-gooders raise huge funds, pay fat salaries, and use the partnership with local communities to legitimize their greed.

Anil Gupta | Professor |Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad

In the Peace Corps in Botswana, I learned how to carry water on my head and noticed how heavy the bucket was. I learned how to pound sorghum into flour and felt the ache in my back. As a designer, I came to understand the importance of technologies that can transport water or grind grain. A new generation of designers has learned that “parachuted” solutions don’t work. Many of the best products out there are developed in close partnership with the communities that need them. Along the way, the capacity of these communities is built up, as merchants expand their stock, farmers are trained in maintenance and installation, and produce yields are increased.


Does do-gooder design amount to cultural colonialism? I believe the answer is yes and no. Yes, because if OLPC moves ahead after failing to properly research the needs of the market, one must question the motives behind those forces brought to bear upon this project. No, because we can’t fault the young, naive, and plain ol’ quixotic for going out there and trying to do good. But this does not mean that their motives are not rooted in a certain hubris.

T.J. Thomas | Principal | Studio Murmur

C.K. Prahalad [author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid] suggested that there was tremendous opportunity to develop products and services for the world’s lowest income earners that would fulfill unmet needs. These consumers at the bottom of the pyramid are also producers, so some of the most beneficial humanitarian designs focus on improving customer productivity.

Lars Hasselblad Torres | Administrator | MIT IDEASGlobal Challenge |

Post Three

Should the Americans and Europeans who do humanitarian design care if they are perceived as neo-imperialists by the elites in whose countries they are working? This gets to the heart of a key issue for many designers who are trying to help the poor in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. When you’re far from home, in other people’s cultures, whom should you listen to? Whom should you respect, and when should you speak truth to power?


Let’s take a clear example where the locals may be the bad guys. CNBC World ran a piece on the Acumen Fund’s work helping small-scale merchants in Nairobi’s Toi Market get financing. Acumen, working with local microfinance institution Jamii Bora, persuaded banks to come up with capital for these merchants. It was a big undertaking that helped many people raise their standards of living.

Then a contested presidential election led to ethnic rioting. The Toi Market was burned down by thugs of one ethnic group, who killed dozens of people. Acumen then had to decide whether to recapitalize the merchants. It did. Even more important, Jamii Bora integrated the thugs into the market community by financing their efforts to build houses and start businesses. Now the ethnic groups are working together to build a better future — thanks to Acumen and Jamii Bora.

But what do you do when the locals are good guys who simply don’t want you in their country for historic reasons? What do you do if they are highly educated, speak your language, go to the same conferences, belong to the same “global elite culture,” and still don’t want you proposing solutions to their country’s problems — just because? Do you ignore them, work around them, argue that your mission is of a higher order than nationalism? Do you ask what they are doing to help the poor in their country?

And finally, what do you do when those local elites who question your presence are design elites — just like you?

If the local elites have issues with outsiders providing solutions to their impoverished, then let them create innovative designs that are cheaper and more efficient than the ones that the Westerners are coming up with. The end goal is to help, and if they think they can do it better, then let’s see it.


Todd Warren Qualitative Intern | Mindwave Research

So is it imperialism? The answer is yes, whether we like it or not. It is imperialism because there is a not-so-subtle imposition of an ideological stance that “design can save the world,” a claim that really isn’t all that robust in the first place. If design really wants to change the world, then design must figure out how to give these people real political power. Until then, it’s some very expensive Band-Aids. These are not hammer-and-nail problems. They are political-influence problems. Ignore these questions at your peril. They persist, whether your recycled-materials playground is a success or not.

Gong Szeto | Blogger |

What do you do when the local elites don’t want you proposing solutions to their country’s problems? To me the answer is simple: Bypass the elite roadblock and go directly to the “consumers” who have the problem. Listen to their needs and design a low-cost solution. If the item designed is successful, the elites tend to jump on board. A beautiful example of this method would be the treadle pump, which is now used by millions of people in Asia.

Paul Ruben Polak | Founder | International Development Enterprises and D-Rev: Design for the Other 90%


Designers often think that since they are in a profession based on empathy, it comes automatically, and so they fail to spend time understanding the people and context they work in. This is not limited to an East-West, North-South debate. It happens all too often with us in the emerging markets as well, where our urban-educated lenses blind us to what happens on the ground.

Jacob Mathew Cofounder | Idiom Design and Consulting

Jacob Mathew hit the nail on the head when he exhorts designers not just to listen to the people they work with, but to live and collaborate with them. It’s like an extreme form of team building: Learning to work with absolute strangers is effective only when you take the time to understand where they are coming from — a LOT of time. If you really believe in your cause, then you must be able to discard your own preconceptions. These are both hard things to do as an outsider. They aren’t easy to do for “local design elites” either. But people manage to do it, and shining examples of persevering designers are many in India.

Avinash Rajagopal | Blogger |