• 07.30.10

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.

Nussbaum: Should Humanitarians Press On, If Locals Resist?


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]

About the author

Bruce Nussbaum is the author of Creative Intelligence (HarperBusiness, March 2013). He is "Mentor-In-Residence" at NEW INC, the art/technology incubator of New Museum.