Do-gooder Design and Imperialism, Round 3: Nussbaum Responds

Sometimes a serious blog conversation delivers only heat, not light, but the discussion surrounding the post "Is Humanitarian Design The New Imperialism?" is proving to be extremely illuminating. There have been great comments here on Co.Design, a good running list at Design Observer and a long string on Twitter. I'll attach some of the responses Tweeted to me at the end of this post.

The best way to respond to the criticisms leveled at the original post is to talk directly to Emily Pilloton at Project H. Emily's rejoinder, "Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds," centers around the photo of the Hippo Roller that illustrated my blog item. She says, "In hindsight, the process of redesigning the Hippo Roller was misguided and disconnected because of its lack of direct collaboration with end users, and a minimal shared investment in its success." Then Emily goes on to say, "That Mr. Nussbaum defined our organization's work by its anomaly is a gross misrepresentation." Ouch: "Mr. Nussbaum," from an old friend.

Alas, I didn't select the photo of the Hippo Roller and there was no editorial intent on my part by its selection. The editor chose it and I?m guessing the decision was made on the power and beauty of the shot itself. [Also, the Hippo Roller was a story previously covered at—Ed.]

That Emily read a criticism into the photo and reacted so strongly is entirely unintended—which is precisely the point that I wanted to make in my post. It was a series of questions—not statements—to people doing wonderful work helping others. The questions about sensitivity to culture and local elites are based on what I saw on the periphery of conferences—Asian designers, business people and officials reacting negatively to what they perceived as Western intrusion. That Project H is doing great work in collaboration with local communities is a given because I've followed Emily's work from its beginning. That many in a design conference Singapore interpreted Project H's work as "imperialism" is also a given. These mostly Indian and Chinese, mostly young people brought their own sensitivities to colonialism to what they heard and saw. The question is how to react to it.

My blog post was a series of questions—not statements—to people doing wonderful work helping others.

I first learned about the unintended consequences of good humanitarian intentions when I was in high school in the '60s tutoring kids in reading in the Head Start program. I was completely surprised when I overheard my supervisor saying that some parents and local community groups opposed Head Start because it undermined "Black English," and, in effect, their culture. That was a time when Black English was thought to be "inferior" to standard English and a major deterrent to kids learning in the classroom. Later, I heard that some Spanish community groups on the West Coast felt the same way. In recent years, I heard that some Native American organizations opposed Head Start.  Until the 1960's native children were taken from their parents to stay at church-run boarding schools where the philosophy of 'kill the Indian, save the child" meant the kids could not speak their own language or practice their beliefs. Some parents who went through that experience were afraid that Head Start would also undermine their culture.

Do I think we should have ended Head Start? Not at all. But acknowledging and engaging the historic legacy, the cultural threats and the parental concerns might have improved the efficacy of 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 kid with a couple of months training teaching Filipino children when there were plenty of more experienced Filipino teachers available? After nursing some hurt feelings, I sat in on classes and discovered that they were right. The real problem in my school was not bad teachers but politics. You needed good political connections to move ahead and many young teachers didn't have them. I switched my job description and began using my power as the "outside American" to help advance good Filipino science teachers.

I discovered yet another example of unintended consequences in the humanitarian space at a design conference in India three years ago. There I got an earful on One Laptop Per Child and how anti-Indian it was. Now, I love the beautiful design of OLPC by Yves Behar. The incredible Sugar interface by Lisa Strausfeld at Pentagram is just brilliant. So I was pretty shocked to hear the criticism. What was it? The intellectuals, designers, business people and government officials at that meeting—sensitive to India's long British colonial history—criticized OLPC's pedagogical intent of cutting out the teacher and the family to link Indian village children directly to the web for learning. They didn't think Semour Papert's work applied to rural, Indian village culture. As a consequence, few OLPC screens can be found in India (or China) today. Is that a tragedy? Perhaps.

Emily, I really don't know how to scale the significance of the 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 and I was channeling that response in my post. That's why the post was structured in the form of questions, not answers. It may be that we should ignore those Asian voices of protest—after all, what are they doing for the poor in their own countries?—or not. But we should be aware that they are saying something we may not like and it may influence the work.

Here are some posts sent to me through my Twitter stream. My favorite is Cameron Sinclair's calling me "Admiral Akbar." Of course, his Architecture for Humanity, along with the Acumen Fund, Project H, Continuum, IDEO and others are doing incredible work in the U.S. and abroad.

Cameron Sinclair: Admiral Akbar, It's a trap! How over-simplification creates a distorted vision of Humanitarian Design

Shahana Siddiqui: Confessions of a Development Practitioner

MASS Design Group: Architecture = Humanitarian Design

MIT Global Challenge: Bruce Nussbaum: The New Imperialism

Susan S. Szenasy: Why Bruce Nussbaum Needs Emily Pilloton

Photo of children in Nepal by One Laptop per Child

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  • Amy Martin

    I am young(er), just out of grad school and completely wary of anyone or anything that professes to be able to save the world with a noun.

    I have very personal reasons for why I feel there is an underlying tone of "west is best" underneath much of the kinds of humanitarian design I see, but I'd primarily like to point out that this is not a generational issue.

    Rather, the most disrespectful, blundering example of cultural imperialism disguised as design that I've seen was a pair of much older, theoretically more experienced design researchers from one of the most widely recognized and respected design companies in the world.

    They were presenting their design research from a trip to a small town in a small country in Africa. Their preparation for the trip included a week or two of listening to some tapes. That was it. Then they proceeded to try to learn about the people in the area via very western methods developed by the company mentioned previously.

    The end goal was to figure out whether or not they could find viable markets to sell products to. They were guileless about that part which was frustrating enough, but the complete lack of understanding of the cultural differences and the havoc they caused in the village blew me away.

    Again I stress that these were design researchers in their 40s (and possibly 50s) working for a very well known design firm. This isn't necessarily a generational issue or one of naivete.

  • Theodore Thomas


    All kidding aside and to your original question, "Does do-gooder design amount to cultural colonialism?", I believe the answer is "Yes" and "No".

    Yes, because If OLPC moves ahead with a full-blown product development and launch after failing to properly research the needs of the market , one must question the motives behind those forces brought to bear upon this project. It continues to win design awards and appear in museums around our country while the target markets ardently reject the solution. Meanwhile, C. K. Prahalad's teachings reek of expanding and exploiting new market opportunities in the West under the guise of lifting up emerging economies. This sounds more like an imperialist World Bank scheme than any type of humanitarian effort.

    The answer is '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.

    With her limited experience, book tour and glad-handing at the post office, Emily Pilloton looks like some archi/designer version of Sarah Palin. And here is where designers (and probably educators) take exception. However tempting it is to think otherwise, a designer's skills and expertise develop within a limited perspective and context. Broader social, political, cultural and economic factors figure greatly into every design project and to underestimate these or overestimate one's understanding of them in a foreign land (domestic or abroad) is arrogant, myopic or naive - REGARDLESS of how it is perceived on the local front. Most professional designers I know don't have this attitude, but rather are curious, quick to ask questions, methodical and slow to make assumptions about their project and their user. And most are do-gooders anyway.

  • Theodore Thomas

    Bruce, love the picture. Those cute little guys, they grow up so fast. Can't wait to see 'em Facebooking behind the wheel of their Tata SUVs.

  • Emily Pilloton

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Bruce. If nothing else, I hope that this debate has inspired us all to work that much harder (I know it has for me...). For the foreseeable future, I'll be in the Studio H woodshop in Bertie County, NC, designing the farmer's market with my 13 high school students... I do hope you will consider my offer to come for a visit. I think you'd find it refreshing and unlike much of the "us vs. them" humanitarian design you reference in these articles. Hope to see you soon,

    Emily Pilloton