Nussbaum: Should Humanitarians Press On, If Locals Resist?

The fourth installment in our series on humanitarianism vs. imperialism: Anti-poverty programs are often paired with complicated politics.

Should American and European designers who do humanitarian design care if they are perceived as "neo-imperialists" by elites in the countries they are working in to alleviate poverty? After the conversation about my previous posts, I'd like to throw that question out for discussion because it 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, who do you listen to? Whom do you respect? When do you speak truth to power?

Let's take a clear example where the local elites may be bad guys. On CNBC World last Saturday night, there was a section on the Acumen Fund's work in helping small-scale merchants in Kenya's big Toi Market get financing. Acumen, working with local partner Jamii Bora, persuaded banks to come up with patient capital for these merchants. It was a big undertaking that helped many people raise their standards of living.

When you're working in other people's cultures, who do you listen to?

Then a contested presidential election led to ethnic rioting and the Toi Market was burned down by thugs of one ethnic group who killed dozens of people. Acumen then had to decide whether or not to recapitalize these merchants. It did. Perhaps more importantly, Jamii Bora was able to integrate the thugs into the market community by financing their own efforts to build houses and start businesses. For the moment, the ethnic groups are working together to build a better future thanks to Acumen and Jamii Bora.

But what do you do when the local elites are good guys who simply don't want you doing good 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 when those local elites who question your presence are design elites—just like you. I'm not sure, but I believe that the reaction to humanitarian design that I saw in Asia was from this group of local design elites. They are a growing, powerful force in India, China, Brazil, and elsewhere—and we need to know what they think. What they really think.

Previous stories in this series:

Is Humanitarian Design The New Imperialism?

Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds

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

[Photo of women in Kaputiei Town, financed by Jamii Bora, by The Acumen Fund]

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  • Brooke Estin

    There is a broken link in there:

    Is Humanitarian Design The New Imperialism? - it's the first post in the series down below takes me to an article about a toaster.  Can you please fix that link?

  • Avinash Rajagopal

    I have to agree with Jacob Matthew, and re-iterate a couple of examples I gave in my response to the original question (http://littledesignbook.wordpr... because this isn't a new issue, and other fields -- notably sociology and anthropology -- and other humanitarian designers have already taken finely nuanced stands on it.

    Laurie Baker and Judy Frater both met with considerable inertia from local designers and communities when the first set out on their remarkable work in India. But they also found allies, colleagues and co-workers. If what you do matters, then you find ways to do it. And if you really believe in your cause, then you must be able to discard your own pre-conceptions. These are both hard things to do as an outsider. They aren't easy things to do for 'local design elites' either. But people manage to do it, and shining examples of persevering designers are many in India.

    Jacob Matthew hit the nail on the head when he exhorts designers to not just listen to the people they work with, but to live with them, collaborate with them. It's like an extreme form of team building: learning to work with absolute strangers is only effective when you take the time to understand where they come from. And we're talking about a LOT of time.

    Immersion and commitment are key. Hopefully if one spends enough time, and keeps an open enough heart, then the question of who to listen to will become redundant. And ultimately your work will bear fruit and garner respect, at least from the people who matter to you.

    And in response to the comment by Todd Warren, it's all this us-and-themming that gets us into trouble in the first place. Let those who want to polarise positions go their way. But let us, who care, stop doing it.

  • Paul Polak

    I enjoyed your ideas here Bruce, I'd like to address your question what do you do when the local elites don't want you proposing solutions to their country's problems just because? To me the answer is simple, by pass the elite road block and go directly to the "consumer" who has the problem listen to their needs and design a low cost solution. If the item designed is sucessful in helping resolve the problem, the elite tend to then jump on board. A beautiful example of this method working would be the treadle pump which has now sold millions in Asia.
    I wish I had time to go more in depth, right now I'll direct you to my blog addressing these ideas at I hope this helps.
    More about the treadle pump can be found at

  • jacob mathew

    First of all is not all design meant to be humanitarian?
    If the underlying charter of design is to improve the quality of life does there need to be this separate category?
    Next are we in a sense talking about Humanitarian Design Aid?
    Aid is a loaded subject, aid is required when there is a severe disruption as in a natural disaster or war.
    Aid in other times can be questionable and we get into territory of what enables people versus what makes them merely survive with or without dignity.
    I was with Dr. Paul Polak and Danile Lantagne, an expert on water who works in failed states recently and the discussion moved to what constitutes a failed state.
    Is a failed state also one where the government fails its people? are regions or communities of the under-served under-represented and under privileged constituents of failed states? We left it off at that.
    But was not the USA a failed state in the aftermath of Katerina?
    Is India a failed state when we look at the numbers that live with less than a dollar a day?

    What role do designers play in such a world?

    What of aid that doles out fish vs aided solutions that make people fishermen ; which is better?

    Isnt all misguided design in a sense imperialistic?

    If humility and the ability to learn with empathy are key to being a good designer then would good design be imperialistic?

    The Aid mentality often brings the notion of superiority. The west is better than the east, the north more than the south and in my own country the urban better than the rural and the educated better than the not so educated....
    I read somewhere the other day that US was happiest as a country in the fifties and people have grown more unhappy as they own more & more stuff they do-not really need.
    Which brings us to needs versus wants.
    Cultural imperialism and the imperialism of consumption and media fueled aspiration!!
    The current debate is really about connect and empathy. Designers often think that being in a profession that is based on empathy it comes automatically and fail to spend time understanding the people and context that they work in. This is not limited to a 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.

    The recent trend that couples business thinking with design thinking to hard work in the field is promising. I have been personally interacting with young business and design school interns from the best US universities working with NGOs and social enterprises in India, and the attitudes they bring if tempered with humility to learn from the people they seek to help, their ability to partner with people from the culture and context that help them interpret what they see and hear can be appropriate and effective.
    My advise to designers from the west ; be open, live with the people you design for and collaborate with people on the ground.....

    it does not matter where you are from , it does matter what your motive is, and what your attitude to the people you seek to help is and your ability to openly collaborate with like people in the countries and regions you work with. And for designers from the countries like mine you could be a world away if you are not tuned in to the people you intend to help.

    Jacob Mathew
    Idiom Design and Consulting Ltd

  • Todd Warren

    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 problem seems to be that the naysayers don't think creativity from the US and Europe is as applicable to their issues as a solution from within would be. If this is true, then let them come up with rival designs to the ones that we offer. The end goal is to help, and if they think they can do it better then let's see it.