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Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?

Does our desire to help do more harm than good?

Emily Pilloton's Design Revolution Road Show, the physical embodiment of her non-profit Project H Design rolled into New York a few weeks ago stopping at Metropolis, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum and ICFF. Yes, Project H is hot in U.S. and European design circles, almost as sizzling as IDEO, the Acumen Fund, and One Laptop Per Child.

And why not? Emily’s Project H is a pure play in using design to do good. It doesn’t get better than this mission statement:

Project H Design connects the power of design to the people who need it most, and the places where it can make a real and lasting difference. We are a team of designers, architects, and builders engaging locally through partnerships with social service organizations, communities, and schools to improve the quality of life for the socially overlooked. Our five-tenet design process (There is no design without action; We design WITH, not FOR; We document, share and measure; We start locally and scale globally, We design systems, not stuff) results in simple and effective design solutions for those without access to creative capital. Our scalable long-term initiatives focus on improving environments, services, products, and experiences for youth and K-12 education institutions in the U.S. through systems-level design thinking and deep community engagements. WE BELIEVE DESIGN CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.

So do I. But whose design? Which solutions? What problems?

One of Project H's initiatives was to redesign the Hippo Roller, a water transportation device

Let me explain. The last time I saw Emily was in Singapore in the fall at the ICSID World Design Congress where she was receiving a roaring applause from the European and American designers on stage after giving a speech about Project H. I loved that speech because it linked the power of design to the obligation to do good. In a world awash in consumption, with many designers complicit in designing that consumption, Emily’s message was right on.

But not to the mostly Asian designer audience. Of course there was polite applause but, to my surprise, there was also a lot of loud grumbling against Emily along the lines of "What makes her think she can just come in and solve our problems?" This was a challenge of presumption that just stopped me cold—and sent me back to my Peace Corps days when I heard a lot about Western cultural imperialism from my Filipino friends. Are designers helping the "Little Brown Brothers?" Are designers the new anthropologists or missionaries, come to poke into village life, "understand" it and make it better—their "modern" way?

Naw. I dismissed the rumblings in the audience against Emily and Project H as insignificant. After all, what were those Asian designers doing for their own poor people in villages and towns in India, the Philippines, and China?

Then, some months later at Parsons School for Design, the same thing happened. I went to a talk by IDIOM Design, one of India’s top design consultancies.

Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?

At the end of a great presentation, a 20-something 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 and Melinda Gates Foundation to design better ways of delivering safe drinking water to Indian villagers. She said this to the Indian businessman Kishoreji Biyani, who is the key investor in IDIOM, and to my stunned surprise—and hers—he groused that there was a better, Indian way of solving the problem. She didn't know what to say. And I didn't either.

I know the Acumen and IDEO people and they, like Emily, are the very best. I know the IDIOM folks and they, too, are the very best. And I have met Mr. Biyani in India and he is an amazing businessman. But he, too, like many in the Asian audience in Singapore, took offense at Western design intervention in his country.

So what’s going on? Did what I see in these two occasions represent something wider and deeper? Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe being perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism? Are the American and European designers presuming too much in their attempt to do good?

As I pondered this, I remembered the contretemps over One Laptop Per Child, an incredibly ambitious project sponsored by all the good guys—the MIT Media Lab, Pentagram, Continuum, fuseproject.

The OLPC XO-3, a touchscreen pad device, is planned to debut in 2012

Again, I know most of the players and they are good souls. The laptop itself is wonderful, with a beautiful shape and unique interface. Yet, OLPC failed in its initial plan to drop millions of inexpensive computers into villages, to hook kids directly to the Web and, in effect, get them to educate themselves. The Indian establishment locked OLPC out 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. OLPC never got into China either. Or most of the large nations it had originally targeted.

So where are we with humanitarian design? I know almost all of my Gen Y students want to do it because their value system is into doing good globally. Young designers in consultancies and corporations want to do humanitarian design for the same reason.

But should we take a moment now that the 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? Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?

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

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  • EchoDelta

    I am surprised that what tends to work the best - in my tiny experience so far - hasn't come up. 
    I realized long ago that technology and design can change the world. But good design is contextual, and the more fundamental the issues the more context matters. The more remote -culturally, geographically, lingusitically, generationally; the harder it is to comprehend; until it becomes almost impossible to do honest to goodness design work.  
    So I decided to have results I could be proud of I had to cut myself out from the loop, and help create new, local loops of design; with people already on the other side of those barriers.
    Thats prefer it when all that effort goes to help teach design - at all levels, of all shapes - to those who can then **use those design skills to improve their own communities**. 

    If you think you are great at design, or that design can change the tough issues in the world, prove it by helping find & shape those who are closest to the problems you find vexing. Be a mentor to that brilliant person or team that will have an Aha! moment that may forever be occluded from you as an individual, but that you may help others discovers. See if our iLabs are a good venue for that; we'd love to have you - at

  • Wonderful article.

    Design "for, with, or by" the Other 90% are vital differences that must be documented, embraced, and promoted. My Ugandan colleagues have already designed the majority of devices designed by Others and yet they cannot get the grants!

    I wrote the Boston Globe recently asking them to not feature students co-designs based on Ugandan designs without agreeing to also featuring Ugandan designers and to co-write the article with a Ugandan journalist. Silence was all that was heard.

    How many international development or anthropologist professors co-write academic articles/books with the vary people they are benefiting from? Almost none. If I write academic articles with Ugandans, then we strive to have 50/50 publication authorship. The amount of horrible things that have been said to me by US researchers is not to be repeated in public. Lets just say, neo-colonization is real and will not break the real wall of development: belief in oneself! - Abigail Mechtenberg

  • Bryan Bell

    There are several fallacies in this article. It is a serious topic and deserves more than the level of rumors and innuendo that are the basis for his points:

    1. B. Nussbaum presumes to speak for the Indians at the conference but only give us “grousing and grumblings.” Don’t edit for them -- give us sources and quotes.

    2. B. Nussbaum argues that design participation means participation of local designers. It does not, it means participation of local users. Design is a cultural act, but given that many areas of need are under-educated, waiting for designers to emerge from their own under-resourced community necessitates that other designers need to be involved, as sensitively as possible, working with local residents to address their challenges

    3. Is everything foreign imperialist? Francis Kéré is from Burkina Faso where literacy is 60%. He received his design education in Germany and returned to build schools. Should he be discredited because his education is “imperialist?”

    4. B. Nussbaum gives one example of failure -- one computer one child -- but gives not credible metric for what this accomplished or not. Do we have to take B Nussbaum's word that this did not work and did no good?

    As far as I know, neither local designers nor the sixties Peace Corps solved all the challenges in thwe world. There are not one or two left that we need to fight over. In this work, there is plenty for many to do. But we do need serious debate, not simplistic positions.


    This is the most stupid way of engaging people people to converse. I want to see what users are commenting. A few pixels at a time?? when there are 70 lines of comments.. then how many clicks. Do better design of comments first before preaching others.

  • John Winslow

    In the 1960s, legions of young Americans, operating under the aegis of the Peace Corps or the Church, thought of themselves as making a sacrifice as they flocked to Latin America and Africa to “help” those whom they perceived as “under-developed.” Sure, a few wells got dug, some schools were built, but as the great social critic Ivan Illich pointed out, the main legacy of these many do-gooders was to get millions more dreaming the American dream - a dream of endless consumption and of professionally defined goods and services - and millions more convinced that only engineers and social workers trained at great cost truly know how to get things done.
    Today, it’s "humanitarian designers" who consciously make the sacrifice, foisting their clever ideas on others in the name of “changing the world.” Fortunately, they may not enjoy the same level of power that simply being an American gave their predecessors 40 years ago, but today’s designers believe just as wholeheartedly that they are “doing good.” And their main interaction in foreign lands still will be mainly with a few elites - those able to appreciate a Harvard degrees or an internship at Apple Computer.
    Let’s face it: Even with rigorous systems analysis backed by massive computer simulation, design efforts rarely fulfill their promises. Experts and professionals tend to design things and places not with the goal of encouraging friendship or helping people to creatively accept and suffer the human condition - to live convivially, as Illich put it. Too often, their efforts lead to further dehumanization and dependence.
    In other words, even a car designed to use water as its fuel, release zero pollutants, and sell for $1,000 would still push walkers and cyclists off the road and destroy communities willy-nilly. Design is not the issue - rather, it’s that other word, humanitarian.

  • Adrienne Downing

    It seems as though humanitarian design may be a field of work that socially aware Western youngsters see as an alternative career path to working for corporations that do harm over seas and encourage over-indulgent consumption. Creating products that people have a need for seems more meaningful and rewarding than adding to the already excessive product consumption we have here in the States. I believe that those who get involved in humanitarian design have a genuine interest in providing other nations with tools to succeed, survive, and live comfortably, sharing our excess with those who would better appreciate it. However, this article points out that the Western ideals of success and survival may be different from those in other countries. Our idealism and eagerness to provide products and solutions to other nations may be considered a slap in the face, as well as a an invasion of culture. In accepting help from the United States, another nation may be seen as giving up responsibility for itself and becoming more dependent, which I believe none of the leaders want. Perhaps they don’t want to adopt our same habits. Globalization has already diluted many cultures and values of smaller countries that have a hard time competing. A country has a right to provide for itself and keep its individuality. This is something we should respect, but I don’t think that we should discourage the humanitarian instinct within our own citizens. We have many complicated issues here at home to overcome. It would seem hypocritical to fix others’ problems before fixing our own, which seems to be a point of criticism as well.
    There are circumstances however, where I believe Project H has made a difference in helping others to provide for themselves. The redesign of the Hippo Roller seems to be essential in the well-being of those who need them while not impeding on their cultural habits. Project H did not eliminate their process of retrieving water, it just made it much easier. This was also a problem that seemed like common sense to fix. Some of the problems we have to fix in the States might seem a little more complicated and daunting, some we might not even be willing to admit to. I suppose it may be easier to make judgements elsewhere than it is to judge ourselves. It was brought up that our Native American and rural areas are somewhat ignored in this design process. Perhaps it is thought that we need to be more self-critical rather than noticing the faults in others.
    So all in all, I think that the humanitarian effort is a good initiative towards a meaningful design career so long as we are sensitive to the identities of those we are trying to help. Helping at home seems like a good place to start, which is precisely what project H is going from the Bertie County School District in North Carolina. Its main focus is rethinking the curricula for K-12 school systems, and it branches out from there. It emphasizes designing WITH, not FOR. Plowman’s “Ethnography and Critical Design Practice” states that designers have mere days or weeks to do immersive research with their subjects. Perhaps more time should be taken to become more culturally aware of those who would resist our help and to co-design with them, not for them. If our help is resisted still, then we should not force it and know when to stop.

  • Billy Fore

    Excellent insight! It is not a point of view I see very often when I read about or hear about Humanitarian Design. I see some of these devices and inventions and cannot help but be happy to see some excellent design solutions to real world problems; on the other hand, what does it mean to truly be humanitarian? Are feelings and sentiments important or just the actual results producing better living? It is a tough one to mull over, really. I have always been one to want to help someone before I know all the information. I think this is really reflective of a guilty conscience more than an altruistic spirit. The moral obligations that many people carry around are like albatrosses that they wish to let go through many well-placed, well-intentioned acts of social kindness. Considering the recipient is a way of humanizing and pragmatically engineering the social problems of the world today.

    My mother grew up on a Chippewa reservation up in North Dakota. She has described to me, over the years, some of the terrible conditions she endured while living there. Today, she is a physical-therapist assistant and stays in contact with many of her elderly patients in her spare time -- giving them extra care and being a friend to their often lonely situations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my mom had a rough childhood and has a heart for service to others. She is a constant inspiration to me -- especially when I am deeply entrenched in a misanthropic mood. But I think there is really one point I glean from all of my mother’s history: Growing up in want gives you a much different perspective on service than if you grow up with all the expected amenities. I constantly go to my mom when I need a wider perspective because, simply, I grew up with everything and had little hardship with which to contend. My experiences touching this topic have not amply prepared me to have a legitimate opinion on this subject. More work is required on my part.

    The problem seems to be driven from a conflict in perception. This is sort of the problem of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.” The verse is strikingly xenophobic, but at the same time, the narrator really does think he is doing incredibly beneficent things for which he is expected great gratitude. But this is not a new issue. An opposing view to the Imperialism argument might be that this is just an issue of pearls before swine. If people are forced into a toilsome daily experience, wouldn’t it just be easier to take the burden-saving device and be appreciative? But even that is coming from a point of view of privilege. I am not sure what it is like to live in a situation where charity organizations try to help you out of your hardship. And my two cents is hardly worth much. But at the end of the day, the important thing is to continue this conversation with those we hope to be helping and further explore the philosophical implications of what humanitarianism means.

  • Garrett Campagna

    In my opinion, which is educated in this area by Frascara and reading through a few different blogs, I would not say that humanitarian design is, or should be, imperialist. We need to examine these issues in context, as Frascara suggests we always should. In the last century, the United States has tried to get involved in issues in which we are not exactly welcome. Examples of this include the Politics of Iraq, religious issues, Vietnam, and our current focus: designing products for nations that theoretically need them.
    While those people in Africa, Asia, and India may need our design in theory, and the citizens will likely be grateful for them, the leadership of those areas doesn’t feel the same way. Many foreign leaders likely view the US as a super power that is trying to turn everyone democratic and influencing those that don’t need our influence. As the Asian audience member said in your writing, “‘what makes her think she can just come in and solve our problems?”’
    I could definitely see where this attitude comes from. If I were to sign up for a race and then trip and fall halfway through, I would not want every bystander and competitor coming to my aid. I signed up for the race and I can handle myself! While that isn’t necessarily a good analogy because no developing nation signed up for poverty and struggle, the message is the same. The pride in most people wants to solve one’s own problems because that speaks to the strength of that person: an injured football player receives applause when he gets himself up, not when the coach comes out on the field. A nation would be seen as stronger if they were to be able to solve their own problems.
    Therefore, if a developing nation doesn’t want the United States’ help, then they need not receive it- there are domestic issues to consider as well. (The fact that we should stabilize our own economy and solve our own problems before helping others’ is a different issue entirely.) We shouldn’t be trying to shove our own design solutions down others’ throats.
    Now, if another nation were to suddenly come to us for help, we should definitely give it. There should be no hard feelings when someone doesn’t want someone else’s help. An analogy for this would be, if my roommate to ask if I needed help on my physics homework. If I were to say, “I think I can handle it myself tonight,” he would probably be ok with me asking for help the next day.
    The point I’m trying to make, is that being humanitarian does not mean being imperialist. We simply need to be ok with it when others don’t want our help, and be willing to help others when they both need it and want it. It isn’t the job of the United States to determine who is in need and meet those needs. Every country needs to be responsible for themselves, but still be willing to help. All these problems could be avoided if we simply asked others if they needed help before trying to help them. Really, humanitarianism is not something that should be forced, by nature. If we were truly considering the interests of others we would be polite with how we presented our solutions, and others would be more polite in accepting our solutions.

  • Eduardo Jezierski

    Designers from high-income countries need to let go of the assumption that context and culture is transferrable. I recommend they let go of the (egoist?) attachment to solve problems themselves, and focus on teaching interaction design, rapid prototyping, and other skills needed to designers of lower income countries - and stick to helping connect with others and giving that 'naivete' in a constructive way - in which they are contributors not owners.
    Constrained environments are a pressure cooker for innovation and design skills in the hands of those who really get it are essential to materializing it. For example, see the work of designers in Cambodia's innovation lab, in phnom penh to help track diseases. (eg

  • Fabricio Dore

    Being a Brazilian designer and working in Europe for a North-american design consultancy I have some pretty strong opinions about it. I came to this post following a discussion on a design community website from Brazil. The thread has just started there and I hope it will be quite interesting - considering that it comes from 'within'.

    A few comments to add to the conversation here:

    (1) Being close to some issue or problem can make you think that they are insoluble. Sometimes it's just because you have too much information. An outsider can enjoy a 'positive ignorance'...

    (2) "I do good because it feels good to me": The fascination that those with more feel when helping those with less, the feeling of doing the 'good', happens also within those countries. For more than 10 years, there's a movement within the more well-off Brazilian designers to go visit poor artisan communities, form partnerships and bring their craft on well design objects to the market. For fame or for some spiritual reason, what matters is that it happens.

    (3) If I was going to be really sensitive about all this, even the fact that the discussion 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, that speaks 1 language but has very different socioeconomic realities (the city of Rio de Janeiro has a GDP per capita similar to Japan*, for instance, whereas some areas in the far north are as poor as African nations); and, lastly, Africa is a continent with so many unique problems that is almost impossible to compare it with anything else...

    Well, what I learned on my Anthropology classes during my degree in Industrial Design, is that no matter what, we should avoid generalizations because they rarely match reality. Instead, if you, European or African designer, want to do good, move your ass from your desk and go see it there, first hand. You will learn that what might seem 'bad' to you, might not really bother the others. You might also learn some things about your own culture, when you come back to your country of origin - and realize that some things you grew up with and thought were good can be pretty nasty.

    There's never one right answer for these issues but keeping the eyes open and sincerely doing good, not for the picture, but because you really care, are requirements that will automatically prevent any sort of new colonialism and provide an open environment for cultural interchange and development.

    *CIA Factbook and IBGE (Insituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística)

  • Luis Arnal

    Late post but here it is for the record...
    I believe reactions to design interventions are isolated and spontaneous behaviors, fueled by pride and desire to stand out--natural human reactions. Viewing things in perspective I don´t think that the Asian designers or Mr. Biyani would oppose to implementing design solutions to social problems as sometimes it is better to do solve a problem half way than not solving it at all ("Satisficing" as H. Simon wrote). In fact, I think that many designers from developing nations would prefer to have design interventions from developed nations than not having them at all. There is a Polish proverb that says “A guest sees more in an hour than the host in a year.” and I think this is precisely the great benefit of foreign interventions and a phenomena I see in my company, in/situm almost everyday when for example, a designer from Brazil is involved in a project for US Hispanics. In this case, the Brazilian questions more, and is less used to the situation we are trying to solve than the local one.
    However, in order to reduce misperceptions about developed-nation solutions for emerging-country problems, the ideal process would be to partner with local designers/researchers. That way, the resulting solution would be co-created and as a side benefit there will be relationships and knowledge transfer to be made.
    So, bring them in (but let us know beforehand)

  • charlesbezerra

    My two cents… I believe this is a very broad topic, and I would like to bring Popper’s ideas to the discussion. According to him, there are verbal problems and real problems: “we shouldn’t let ourselves be goaded into taking seriously problems about words and their meaning” which for him was the “surest path for intellectual perdition”; and there are the real problems, which for him, includes: “reducing misery, violence, ignorance and increasing freedom.” So, I believe any attempt to act on real problems should be respected.
    For Popper we should be intellectually humble (meaning we should be looking for critical debate for testing our ideas instead of defending them) and also optimistic, which for him was a moral duty. Definably designers can learn a lot from others in different contexts and we should be doing this more often, for the real problems are increasing in complexity and scale. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them…’ there is only ‘We…’ because, WE have a lot to do.

  • Paula Thornton

    It's not design imperialism, it's just bad design: focusing on the product and not the context/system.

  • Alberto Villarreal

    I really think it is about time designers and professionals of any field (no matter where they are located or where they come from) start working on solutions to try to reduce the gap between the more privileged and the ones with unsolved basic needs. If more Gen Y folks are interested in philanthropic design is because there is clearly a rising notion and urgency in search for social balance that the younger generations are more aware of (I see because every time I give a talk about social design the younger folks are usually the ones interested in DOING something and participating in social design projects).

    I'm a former member of the Project H Design San Francisco chapter and currently lead the Mexico City-based group Razon Social. We work with local communities and sometimes encounter the same issue: certain resistance to the receiver community to accept help from the more economically privileged ones.

    As Emily says, it is messy, wonderful and difficult, but once you put your hands on the work and get to the community you see it with different eyes. Again, I think it is about time professionals of ALL fields start working towards a more equal world and less focused on making a profit. A good exercise for everyone is to look at the UN Millennium Goals and start thinking what YOU can do.


  • Bruno Ferreira

    The last paragraph of this post is for me what summarises THE big problem. 'Humanitarian design' was born in the wrong countries.
    The difficulty that some designers are experiencing implementing their help projects in the developing world is coming from governments, suspicious of westerners intentions.
    We can all understand that if we are not showing that we are looking in to our problems with the same eyes that we use in Africa that India might refuse help. I think things are changing. I write about htat change here (

  • Michelle Boucher

    I might add to your last paragraph. We don't need to look as far as the reservation to find poor living condiditions--they exist in the marginalized populations in every city. Even in my town of 12,000 in the "idyllic" midwest, children (mostly white) go to bed hungry, live in substandard conditions, and are doomed to repeat the cylcle of poverty and despair without intervention. Why is it so much easier to care for starving children in a third world country?

  • Viren Brahmbhatt

    There is a paradigm shift in response to the changed world and the social/economic divide that some of us acknowledge and are working towards bridging; however, the 'change-mongers' and the so-call...ed 'design-thinkers' exploiting the opportunities for personal gain has been giving those well-meaning folks a bad rap.
    -Viren [de.Sign | New York]

  • Tasos Calantzis

    Gee; I'm late to the party but here's my 10c worth:

    Bruce Nussbaum has taken a pasting for asking whether Western designers attempting humanitarian design are actually helping or not. He also asks “Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?” The answer to the second question is “of course, yes.” The very question has raised the ire of designers in those places. Most European and American designers who have passed through Terrestrial’s South African office, travelled to Uganda with David Stairs or spent time with Prof Ranjan at NID in India would also agree. However, respectful peer-to-peer collaboration with local designers, users and experts is often preached and seldom done.

    The answer to the first question takes a little longer. Design might change the world but not in the way most people think. The greatest changes in nations occur in the social, political and economic spheres. These are the areas that require the most radical redesign and designers wishing to do good should develop the skills for them. These are also contextual fields; failure to account for them in other projects results in unintended consequences and failure or mediocrity. This is the graveyard for most humanitarian design projects and the reason why many that succeed tend to be insignificant in scale.

    Humanitarian design initiatives should be applauded wherever they come from but they carry a large responsibility to the people whose lives they experiment with, for the resources and goodwill they consume and for the context in which they operate. Those organizations that actually do good at an effective scale (like Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity) succeed because they both understand this and do it.