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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