Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?

Thanks to our friend and former Peace Corps Panama volunteer Matt Gilbride for co-authoring this post. Matt is currently finishing his graduate work in Industrial Design at NC State University. Check out some of his work.

As Planting Empowerment expands in Panama’s Darien province, we find ourselves examining the questions raised by Bruce Nussbaum in his July 7th, 2010 Fast Company article.

The author poses a powerful question to all those engaged in humanitarian development and design: “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” As former Peace Corps volunteers ourselves (and two of us with design experience) we have some perspective on Nussbaum’s article.

Nussbaum states that humanitarian design’s overtures have encountered resistance by those post-colonial cultures that design is so eager to help. We’ve witnessed numerous initiatives fail during our tenure as volunteers in some of the same regions that Planting Empowerment works today, so we tend to agree. After all, these same people have seen one well meaning project after another fail to deliver its promised benefits, or worse, cause more problems than it solved.

At the same time, we wouldn’t call humanitarian design imperialism (and we don’t think Nussbaum intended a literal comparison). Our field experience has made us wary of becoming just another paternalistic development program, and we certainly don’t regard power and expansionism as the motivation for our business. In fact, when designing the Equitable Forestry model we purposefully tied our profitability to that of the local Panamanians with whom we work.

Our business doesn’t thrive unless our partners do.

We support the development of a sustainable local economy by co-designing new businesses with the same people who have managed and worked the land for hundreds of years. Our Equitable Forestry model was created to complement, not replace, existing traditional practices with profitable native species forestry and low impact management.

And the engine behind these programs is the patient capital that seeks to both support and profit from improving sustainable opportunities for others.

Perhaps most importantly, this is not just another several year Peace Core stint. It’s our business, and we’re in it for the long haul.

As a social enterprise, we’re constantly wrestling with the concerns raised in Nussbaum’s article. Are we designing from the bottom up? Is the community invested in our business? Are we empowering people to succeed on their own, without our help?

There’s no doubt that we, along with other programs like us, will face criticism from those who have endured the indignity of both imperialism and international development gone awry. Such criticism is understandable and justified, and we welcome the opportunity to continue the discussion.